Thursday, January 11, 2018

Extending Social Capital – a primer for those who wish to do good in higher education

In the past two decades, as post-secondary education became more efficient and responsive to mandated regulations or competitive pressures, we narrowed our thinking about what education should be.  That narrowness pushed us into emphasizing college and university education for occupational purposes.  The same hyper-emphasis has also affected many K-12 schools which are being asked to be accountable for not just students’ graduations, but to ensure that students are on track for vocational futures.  That’s not entirely wrong.  Occupational readiness can and should be one of an educational system’s aims.  After all, the nation has a right to ask our schools to fill the society’s economic need by preparing students for careers and economic stability.  And it’s certainly important to know that education will lead to something. 

Let me accede that ONE purpose for education is employment and that developing needed skills is important.  To provide those skills, though, skills-focused training isn’t enough.  To give someone technical training in the skills to be an engineer, doctor, plumber, or accountant is a start.  But that person, upon completing the training, will need to negotiate that profession with more than technical skills. Knowing how to build a bridge, diagnose illness, replace the pipes in a house, or maintain financial records doesn’t do people good if they can’t get a job using those skills or successfully negotiate the complexity of how those skills are applied when hired.   An educational experience that doesn’t extend beyond the techniques of the profession, regardless of what kind of profession, will create disadvantages for some while privileging others. 

Anyone who glances at the history of education in the U.S. knows that it has always been a tiered system from its onset.  Certain people have been educated for leadership by allowing them experiences that broaden their worlds.  People with power and privilege get an education that teaches them to think critically and holistically while making the professional connections they need.  Even into the first half of the 1900s that differentiation was just an expected outcome.  Some people had privilege and others didn’t.  During the past 50 years, the nation began working toward accessible education for all.  But we really didn’t interrogate the issue of the kind of education that some receive and others didn’t.  Actually, as we made education more available, we also started creating more narrowly available educational experiences for the new populations who hadn’t been previously served.  This new education focused on technical skills to provide the workers we needed as we ramped up initially for an industrial and now knowledge economy.  The downside is that who receives which kinds of education falls along the same socioeconomic and racial lines that allow privilege to some and exclude others.  We still provide a broad and expansive education for some while providing technical training for others.

This isn’t about the type of job, but, rather the type of opportunity.  We can limit the kinds of experiences that a physician receives as much as we can limit a plumber’s.  Whether we’re preparing electricians or lawyers, we need to ensure that people are prepared equitably to progress into and through their profession.  Unfortunately, disparate educational experiences have historical roots that lie deep within our systems of class and race.  Race, gender, socio-economic status matter.  While focused technical training will provide people with skills, those skills need to be applied in a world where race, gender, social status, and other characteristics create barriers for some people.  Since the early civil rights era, we’ve opened more opportunities to attend school for more people.  But the type of education given to people who aren’t in education systems of privilege means that some have access to people and ideas that others do not.  And that access equates to social capital that ensures continued, generational privilege to some and continued generational exclusion to others. 

If you’ll forgive me for being professorial (a classification that I proudly accept), let me define what I mean by “social capital.”  The term gets thrown around a lot in discussions like this, and it’s often used to define an individual’s feeling of belonging that translates into access to knowledge and privilege.  It’s often used to show that non-privileged people become marginalized because they lack access to the networks and the resulting power needed for full participation in a society.  I like Robert Putnam’s more nuanced perspective on the term.  He looks at social capital in relation to groups and suggests a definition that:

 emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and – at least sometimes – for bystanders as well. (

Putnam’s view is one of the collective nature of social networks, and that collective nature becomes important as we look at how students’ social capital (gained from their inclusion or exclusion in certain groups) affect their education.  It’s not just what an individual brings to an experience in relation to dominant societies.  Social capital is a description of what my group identities provide to both me, and to the others around me.  Moreover, it’s not just the person with power who holds social capital.  All of us possess the social capital of our affinity groups.  However, as I seek entry from my affinity group to another that has more power or status, I may not possess the social capital to access that other group.

I see this regularly when someone gets referred to me for counsel about finding work in higher education.  One person will come after spending months unsuccessfully trying to find work.  That person will have a degree that qualifies her for the work, yet she isn’t being interviewed or offered opportunities when she submits her resume.  As I ask that person what kinds of experiences she had in college, she generally speaks of the courses and requirements of the degree.  When I ask if she has any contacts in higher education within her network, the answer is typically something like, “No – I just graduated.  This is all new to me.”

Contrast that to many people I know who got hired into their first higher education job as they were finishing a graduate degree or soon afterward.  They typically hear about the job through their networks – networks that often begin to form in their degree program as faculty and peers connect students to past graduates and professional associates.  Who typically gets those experiences?  Generally, it’s students who have develop a bond with the people they encounter, and most often those are faculty and peers with similar backgrounds as they have.  They connect through internships or opportunities to participate in the faculty’s research.  In order to have that first job, it’s often about those networks.  Then when these folks finally get hired, they have that same network to call for advice on how to manage the complexities of the job beyond technical skills.  In contrast, this all becomes moot if a degree program doesn’t make those connections for you, and you find yourself relying on your resume to shine among the dozens (hundreds?) of other resumes sitting in a hiring manager’s inbox.  I see this as we hire people in education, but I know that this extends to other occupations, too. 

Seems to me that all this calls for looking at education as a place for the connections of social capital as much as it’s a place for knowledge.  Elite schools and elite groups in universities already know this.  The formal and informal alumni networks from places like Stanford or Wharton form the root system of this country’s political and business elites.  It’s no accident that Facebook sprouted from a Harvard tradition that was intended to connect students to each other.  And it’s no accident that Paul Allen and Bill Gates learned computer programming on mainframe computers in high school as their private Seattle high school exposed them to the people who gave them that access.


We’ve sold students on the idea that if they get an education, the power of that education will be enough to ensure their future.  In other words, the technical skills they gain will serve them well.  The maxim to “study hard, get good grades, and you’ll have your pick of jobs” is rooted in the Calvinist ideals of the rewards of work and the importance of individual effort.  It assumes that the rewards of success attach to the follower of that axiom.  On the face of it, this platitude sounds right:  meritorious reward, based on effort.  The flaw is that it assumes a fair process where all effort receives equal, or at least equivalent, reward.  But the student with the requisite social capital has more potential to make that true.  If I have connections and insider knowledge of how things work, I’m more likely to get hired and to progress in my profession.


So that’s the problem.  The solution requires a different kind of education system – one that relies on people who are willing to share their social capital – not as missionaries or messiahs who want to “help” marginalized communities, but as co-explorers of the world.  If I have power and privilege, and if I make connections with people who aren’t like me, I’m more likely to learn more about the larger world and be better equipped to navigate it.  That means being able to learn from others and to walk alongside others – not to be their helper or savior.  And once I’m in real and honest relationship with them, then I can share my social capital as they extend theirs to me. The critical learning would be that people including me into their worlds is as important and valuable as me including them in mine.  Social capital is not just what the powerful and privileged possess.  It is what allows us access into the multiple cultures and societies that we navigate.  Think of it like a foreign currency that allows people to negotiate different worlds.


All this means an education system that, instead of rewarding certain types of social capital, provides opportunities for people of differences to meet and interact and learn together.  It means looking at education differently than a pseudo-meritocracy that rewards only those with the privilege and access with which they were born.  It means allowing people’s difference to have as much value as their accomplishments.  It means that schools would educate for collaboration and cooperation as much as competition (or maybe instead of competition).  It would be healthy for the society, after all, for those with privilege to learn that their status isn’t the result of a modern manifest destiny that confers favor to them. 


Please don’t leave this article thinking that I’m proposing another technical solution where education needs to provide more exposure opportunities.  Internships, externships, service learning, cooperative education opportunities, and the like have been around for a long time.  They work well, but they’re clearly not enough to bridge the social capital chasm.  Many of the people who come to me for help in finding work in higher education have had those experiences, yet they are still stymied about finding work.  What I propose requires more personal investment – a way for people to share their social capital outside of their affinity groups – as a significant purpose of the educational system.  We who are professionals know how to do that within our existing affinity groups as we write reference letters, make phone calls on people’s behalf, or bring people with us when we attend gatherings.  That’s all built into the norms of our social groups. 


To extend our social capital truly, though, requires that we discover how to develop and sustain relationships outside of what we typically do.  And that begins with discussions where we learn from people outside our own bubble as we share our knowledge.  I don’t include a formula for how to do that in this statement because effective and genuine relationships are never about a formula.  The closest I can offer is that you need to be honest and open to listening to what others tell you.  And you need to advocate for systems of education that encourage and value and promote complementarity among diverse groups and people.  If there is a skill to this work, it’s the skill of listening, learning, and living in each other’s worlds.  This model of crossing borders requires a systemic change that allows cooperation and dialogue to occur. 


These are lofty ideas and some might argue completely fanciful.  But, as with any change, we begin with a vision of what can and should be.  Then we live into it.  There are already organizations at all levels of education that practice these ideals.  For example, Highlander has been doing this work for decades as it provides support to groups ranging from the early Civil Rights movement to indigenous groups in Central America to Appalachian folk artists.  There are also people who live this way.  Some educational consultants no longer parachute into a setting and offer a one-sized-fits-all solution – and prefer to commit to longer-term relationships where they can embed into institutions and become part of the institutional community. 


These people and organizations should be our models, the people and groups we seek out when we look to new ways of operating.  We make choices when we decide what should be.  If we inform those choices with a clear vision, soon elements of that vision start to emerge.  What I propose, then, is that this starting vision – where we begin with the idea to create opportunities for people to meet and cooperate to share each other’s social capital – can help us to make the small decisions now that will give everyone an equitable opportunity for the future. 


And maybe that will mean that someday the person who comes for career advice to me will come to ask about how to decide among the multiple opportunities before her.