Social capital unlocks opportunities. Here’s how colleges can help Black students build it.

Jobs for the Future (JFF), a nonprofit focused on American education systems and the workforce, has released a framework to aid higher education institutions in exposing Black students to the concept of social capital—or the ways in which social connections and networks can help people secure opportunities and navigate the unwritten rules that define the college experience and the professional world.

In a discussion about the importance of social capital with Higher Ed Dive, Michael Collins, a vice president at JFF, recalls his own previous ignorance about the importance of professional social capital while in graduate school. A chance meeting between Collins, then a grad student studying higher education and public affairs, and the son of the Texas higher education commissioner at a party led to a paid internship. But it was an opportunity Collins says he almost missed because he didn’t understand the importance of professional social capital. “I wasn’t actively trying to make connections. But looking back, I see how important it is,” he explains. “It launched my career in higher education.”

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Strategies for building social capital

Collins, who also heads JFF’s Center for Racial Economic Equity, explains that, as in his case, Black students often have not been exposed to the concept of social capital. As a result, JFF says, Black learners and workers experience higher rates of unemployment, earn lower wages, and amass less wealth than their white counterparts. Harvard Business Review also finds that Black workers, especially Black women, are less likely to secure highly visible workplace mentors, also known as sponsors, who can vouch for their protégés’ merit and legitimacy.

Colleges and employers need to step in to fill in that knowledge gap, Collins explains. “It’s really important that Black learners understand that the workforce isn’t just about having skills and competencies,” he said. “It is about who knows that you have those skills and competencies.”

To ensure postsecondary institutions and employers set up Black learners and professionals for mentorship and career advancement opportunities, JFF created a social capital framework that recommends strategies including:

  • Creating equitable, mandatory mentorship programs—potentially engaging alumni and peers—that connect Black learners to a point person in their field or community who can help them navigate academic and employment pathways and link them to additional sources of support.
  • Establishing required programs for first-year students that communicate the importance of social capital and discuss ways to leverage and expand the skills and experiences they already have to achieve their goals. 
  • Integrating ongoing career services and academic advising through work-based learning and other career exposure opportunities that enable students to create networks that support both their education and professional journeys. 

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