Why Building Social Capital is Key to Student Success

As we approach the start of a new school year, high school juniors and seniors are contemplating their future — whether headed towards the workforce or a college experience — and they are weighing their grades, extracurricular activities, and test scores to determine next steps to reach their goals. But a critical component is left out of these conversations: social capital remains an important factor in predicting the success of a student in their post-high school endeavors. Regardless of their SAT scores, their GPA, or their varsity letters, students with more social capital tend to be set up for more success.

Urban Initiatives is working to help students build social capital through our high school programming which seeks to prepare our participants for college and careers. Building social capital and learning the fundamentals of networking are a key component to that mission. Our Future Leaders Fellowship is a three day long learning experience that works to help high school students from all areas of Chicago learn about college and career possibilities while building their social capital.

What is Social Capital?

“Social capital represents the sum of all the assets available to members of a network or a group.” This includes the relationships between members, the resources available through the members of the group, and the knowledge possessed by the group to name a few components. Not only is social capital embedded in the members of the group but social capital also helps to determine the actions of the members by creating new paths and opportunities.

The Future Leaders Fellowship is a three day learning experience that includes tours of a Chicago college or university, a civic institution, a corporation, and a cultural institution. The fellowship is attended by high school students from across the Chicago area- including the south side, west side, north side, and the North Shore. The fellowship builds relationships between the students themselves, creating a network of peers that can expand a student’s social capital. The fellowship also gives students opportunities to meet with university professors, professionals across industries, and civic leaders. While they learn about the post-graduation opportunities and build their own knowledge about college and careers, they are also connecting to leaders in a variety of fields which allows them to tap into those experts’ knowledge as well.

Building social capital builds bridges that facilitate the achievement of students’ goals, but it also exposes them to new role models and allows them to think about new possibilities and set new goals.

Building Social Capital Through Youth Programming

Youth programs represent intentional spaces that bring together youth and non-family adults to build the relationships that are foundational to building social capital. Studies have shown that youth in programs interact with a range of adults, not just program staff, but also adults from the local community and from other organizations. In Urban Initiatives programming, our students have intentional opportunities to interact with young professionals, C-suite level executives, university professors, and non-profit leaders in addition to their time with program staff.

“In making the transition through adolescence into adulthood, young people need and benefit from relationships with a range of engaged adults outside of the family. These relationships can provide resources and benefits — social capital — that helps youth connect to and eventually make the transition into the adult world”

Building social capital is by no means a simple process, but it is vital for students as they prepare for college and careers. Students remain exceptionally busy during school months — focusing on their grades, test scores, and extracurriculars — so summer is a vital time to keep students engaged in youth programming that intentionally builds social capital. During this year’s Future Leaders Fellowship, students toured Northwestern University, the Daley Center, McDonalds University, and the Obama Foundation. The fellowship builds social capital not only through each day’s scheduled activities, but also through the student-student interactions and the staff-student interactions that occur over the three day program. It is our hope that through opportunities like the fellowship our participants can build the social capital necessary to ensure their success in the future.

Students visited the Obama Foundation and participated in a panel with youth professionals working at the foundation.

Social Capital & College Readiness

“The implications of social capital — or the lack thereof — influence individuals long before careers are launched — as early as high school — when students are trying to access information and resources to prepare for postsecondary education.”

Many of our high school participants—although not all—have their aspirations set on attending a four year university. Oftentimes these students think less about the importance of networking and building social capital because a career feels a long way off. However, for students intending to attend a four year college or university, social capital is still hugely influential.

College admission is a long and complicated process. The process includes standardized testing, application essays, letters of recommendation, and financial aid applications. Without the necessary resources to navigate these difficult processes, the road to college admission is incredibly daunting.

Building social capital will provide our participants with the tools, resources, and advocates they need during the college admission process. Contacts at local universities can help them weigh the importance of college interviews, connect them with admissions officers, and answer financial aid questions. By knowing more college graduates, they can get a better picture of life at different universities and have the opportunity to decide if a particular school is the right community for them. The Future Leaders Fellowship includes a full day at a local university that includes a tour of campus, mock classes, the opportunity to meet professors, and talk to university alumni. These opportunities can build the social capital needed for college admission.

Social Capital & Career Readiness

Anybody that’s ever said that jobs are about who you know instead of what you know recognizes the value in social capital. Social capital is often traded through networking. Networking allows you to connect with others in your field to gain more knowledge about the field, make career moves, and connect to potential resources. Networking and thus building your social capital has become a vital part of most jobs. During the Future Leaders Fellowship, participants are given a chance to meet and greet with professionals at each of the site visits. These small group networking opportunities are great practice and throughout the fellowship we saw students asking for business cards from the professionals they met along the way

Networking isn’t the only way that increased social capital improves career success though. University of Chicago professor Ronald Burt, who studies professional networks and their impact on career success, notes that networking isn’t just important for making career moves, but also for success within your position.

“When individuals are exposed to diverse types of people they learn to be a bridge between those with diverging opinions. In the process, they become more capable in their field, able to spot opportunities and new ways of thinking that more isolated colleagues miss.”

Networking is a vital part of building social capital, but simple exposure to a variety of professionals is also a major benefit of building social capital. For many youth, their exposure to career options is limited to their parents’ network which can sometimes mean that their view of career opportunities is narrow or skewed towards a particular industry. By introducing youth to a variety of professionals that work in different industries, students can expand their view of potential careers and pathways to those careers. For our participants that envision themselves transitioning from high school straight to a career path, learning how to network and build vital social capital is hugely important, but is infrequently taught. The Future Leaders Fellowship gave our students opportunities to practice networking and build their social capital to prepare them for career success.


In the weeks following the Future Leaders Fellowship, we reconnected with one of the students that attended. Christian is headed into his freshman year at Depaul University. During the Future Leaders Fellowship, Christian had the opportunity to connect with a young professional that works for a Chicago real estate company. Christian got her business card and followed up the next week. She was able to connect Christian with her boss, who is the COO of the company and within a couple of weeks Christian scheduled a lunch with the young woman and her boss. Through the fellowship, Christian was able to connect with two successful professionals in the Chicago real estate industry to learn more about the industry and career opportunities with the company. He is exemplifying the intention of the Future Leaders Fellowship by capitalizing on these opportunities to build social capital.

The 2018 Future Leaders Fellowship is a chance for our high school participants to see themselves in a variety of post-graduation opportunities. Whether their path will take them to a four year university or to a career track, it is important that they build the network and the social capital necessary for success. By bringing together diverse voices, perspectives, and pathways it is our hope to provide them with the tools they need to achieve their goals and become our city’s next generation of leaders.

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