Are Social Networks and Relationships Actually the Key to Student Success?

Are Social Networks and Relationships Actually the Key to Student Success?

When it comes to preparing students for success after high school, we often hear of the importance of academic content, including advanced college prep work. But there is another equally important facet of post-secondary success: relationships. Some might argue, in fact, that relationships and community connections are actually more important than a student’s test scores or track record of taking challenging coursework. This issue was highlighted in a recent opinion piece by Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research for the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in California.

Writing for the online education news site The 74 Million, Freeman posited that in an era of increasing income inequality, “relationships are arguably becoming the best-hidden asset in the modern opportunity equation” because they function as a little-acknowledged form of leverage and social advancement, primarily for higher income students. The basis of her argument concerns an old adage: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. The idea here is that relationships, networking, and social capital play a powerful yet often obscured role in helping some people access opportunities in school and in their careers.

“Depending on their backgrounds,” Freeman noted, “children possess vastly different webs of relationships that they can tap into.” This matters because well-resourced parents are often able to both subtly and directly introduce their children to meaningful, supportive relationships beyond their immediate family. These additional connections can then act as a lifeline in times of trouble as well as a leg up when it comes to applying for scholarships, “knowledge economy” jobs, and other advancement prospects. In contrast, students from more marginalized backgrounds may lack a strong network of successful, available adults who can help them outline a productive path forward.

This disparity also results in what Freeman called an “investment gap” between wealthier students and their low-income peers. More specifically, families that can afford to enroll their children in after-school activities—including organized sports clubs and academic enrichment classes—often end up establishing connections with “informal mentors,” such as coaches, teachers, and tutors. All of these experiences and connections form the backdrop of the well-documented gaps in academic achievement between low-income students of color and the white, wealthier students who typically do well on a whole range of outcomes from standardized test scores to college admission and graduation rates. (Asian American students also tend to do well in these areas.)

Still, in Freeman’s view, many observers seem to narrowly focus on the achievement gap in terms of test scores and proficiency rates rather than delving into the “vastly different” social networks and enrichment opportunities that often exist among varying socioeconomic groups. One situation that brought this issue to the forefront occurred in early 2019, when more than two dozen prominent, wealthy parents were indicted in a college admissions scandal known as “Operation Varsity Blues.

The adults in this case were charged with participating in a criminal scheme designed to get their children into prestigious colleges with bribes and falsified test scores, along with fraudulent academic and enrichment records. While some of the details seem outlandish—for instance, the allegation that students who had never actually played a particular sport were listed as varsity-level recruits by colleges such as Yale—the scandal has sparked a wider conversation about how uneven the playing field can be for students from less privileged backgrounds.

Sources such as the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute have used this case as an opportunity to challenge the idea that the United States system is strictly a meritocracy. Writing for the institute’s website, researchers Diana Elliott and Steven Brown pointed out that, “In many ways, we already know that the higher education system is not a meritocracy,” as elite institutions such as Ivy League schools typically make room for otherwise average students whose parents either went to the school or can afford to donate large sums of money to it. In the view of Elliott and Brown, this status quo helps reinforce race- and class-based ideas of who is most deserving of a high-quality education.

Citing the work of sociologist Annette Lareau, Elliott and Brown summed up the situation thusly: “The system trains privileged children to expect more and less privileged children to expect less.” Echoing Freeman of the Clayton Christensen Institute, Elliott and Brown also asserted that while children of means are typically given access to the best schools and enrichment opportunities, “working-class children are parented with fewer intensive investments—financially and time-wise.” They went on to explain that this is due to the greater uncertainty and diminished resources typically faced by such families, rather than any inherent difference in concern for their children’s future.

It may be unrealistic to think that parents of privilege will ever stop advocating for their own children. Instead, as Freeman discussed in her piece for The 74 Million, it might be worthwhile for schools to help students from less privileged backgrounds develop their own social networks. Responding to the question of what schools can do to help close “social gaps,” Freeman pointed to a few examples, such as “increasing students’ access to caring relationships” by proactively connecting students and families to school and community resources. She also noted that some schools have learned to emphasize—rather than limit—online connections, as these have the potential to bring students and mentors together no matter where they live or work.

Closing social gaps is important because what students know and who they know are, as Freeman phrased it, “inextricably linked.” Making this fact not only known and but more widely visible could be a key way to help more students develop the kinds of networks, connections, and relationships that undergird academic achievement in an undeniable way.

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