Social capital matters. Greater access to social capital can benefit all young people as they work toward their education and career goals. Social capital consists of the resources that arise from a web of developmental relationships, which people can access and mobilize to help them improve their lives and achieve their goals. Due to a range of structural barriers, including racism and discrimination, social capital that advances postsecondary and career trajectories is often not equitably distributed among young people of color and young people from low-income backgrounds. This inequity has led to the development of several promising youth and young adult–serving programs that are purposefully designed to increase education- and occupation-relevant social capital. One way programs can support the development of social capital is by helping young people develop high-quality relationships and build their personal and professional networks with peers and near peers.
Our Social Capital Assessment and Learning for Equity (SCALE) research shows that relationships with near peers, in particular, may be especially valuable for promoting social capital development. Near peers in the current study are people who are relatively close in age to program participants or who have recently had an experience similar to that of participants (e.g., graduate of the program, recently secured employment, recent college graduate). Near peers often support program participants by serving as mentors or coaches, and thus they may be uniquely situated to provide social capital support.
In fact, of all the relationships that program partners assessed, near peers emerged as the strongest developmental relationship and the relationship that provided program participants with the most resources, including valuable information, connections to others, and useful skills for reaching education or employment goals.
Our study examines social capital with near peers by assessing two key components of social capital:
1. Developmental relationships
2. Resources provided through these relationships
Developmental relationships are close connections that help young people discover who they are, gain abilities to shape their own lives, and learn how to interact with and contribute to the world around them.
Search Institute’s developmental relationships framework outlines five elements that comprise a developmental relationship: Express Care, Share Power, Challenge Growth, Provide Support, and Expand Possibilities.
Program participants report experiencing each of these five elements more often with their near peers than with their program peers or their teachers or professors outside of their program.
Similarly, a greater percentage of program participants report that near peers were more likely than program peers and teachers or professors outside of their program to help them:
Organizations can promote social capital by connecting young people to both developmental relationships and useful resources. One way to center social capital development in an organization’s work is to measure how young people experience the relationship-building efforts in a program and track the resources these relationships facilitate access to.
We created two tools to help organizations assess and improve young people’s developmental relationships and their ability to build social capital.
The measures are a series of scales on social capital and related topics, including network strength, relationship-building skills, and others. They are organized around four domains:
The Social Capital Assessment + Learning for Equity (SCALE) project gives us hope that program leaders, educators, and organizations will find inspiration and support in these findings.
When we understand the importance of social capital and strong peer-to-peer relationships in youth development, we help unlock the doors to young people’s educational and career success.
Beginning with measuring how young people experience relationship-building efforts and by following their progress through programs, we aim to create meaningful connections and rich relationships that will help all young people to thrive.