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Think a college degree is enough? Here's why peers and alumni can make all the difference

Julia Freeland Fisher and Richard Price
October 21, 2020

For Sheila Sarem, getting her first job was an opaque process that came down, largely, to luck. Sarem graduated college short on resources and without a clear plan for what came next. As she explained in her TEDX talk, “The Social Capital Gap”: “My family had been in this country for less than one generation… I wasn’t the kind of teenager asking my friends’ families what they did for a living,” she explained. “And I can’t even tell you if my college had good career support.” After college she moved home, waited tables, and eventually traveled abroad in search of opportunities to put her major in International Business to work. Armed with her degree and tip money, Sarem literally knocked on doors asking for a job until an expat answered who was willing to take a bet on her.

Sarem now runs an organization aimed at taking the chance out of chance encounters that can open doors to good jobs. As the Co-Founder and CEO of Basta, she’s part of a growing cohort of education-to-employment entrepreneurs working to ensure that historically underserved and overlooked college graduates gain access to high-quality jobs. One common denominator at the heart of these programs? Connecting students with peers and near-peers who help them develop the close relationships and professional networks that traditional colleges tout in brochures, but often leave to chance. 

A ‘treasure chest’ of social connections

Sarem’s emphasis on the importance of social capital has decades of research in its favor. Relationships are critical to thriving. Sociologist and former Ford Foundation Vice President Xavier de Souza Briggs has aptly described how relationships serve dual purposes in our lives: “Individuals of all backgrounds need a two-sided treasure chest of social capital,” he wrote. “Access to social support that helps us cope with life’s stresses and challenges (‘get by’) and access to social leverage, the key to mobility or ‘getting ahead.’” 

For the past few years, the Christensen Institute has been documenting emerging models that are explicitly aimed at stocking students’ “treasure chest” of social capital to pave better pathways to opportunity. This week, we released a set of profiles on four such programs: Basta, Braven, COOP, and Climb Hire. The first three support current college students and recent graduates. Climb Hire serves jobseekers whether or not they have attended college.

Why, you might wonder, do college graduates need the additional supports these programs offer? After all, abundant data suggests that bachelor’s degrees remain the most promising ticket to economic mobility.

It’s not, however, proving to be a foolproof route to good jobs -- in some cases, a degree may be necessary but not sufficient. As entrepreneurs like Sarem have tried to understand what goes into job-getting, they’re discovering that for historically underserved students, their hard-earned degrees may not always come with the networks needed to put those degrees to work in the labor market.

Brokering new peer networks

To nurture students’ networks, the four programs we profiled all work to cultivate a mix of tight-knit community connections and relationships with employers.

Basta brings together cohorts of 25-30 low-income, first-generation students and graduates, and provides an environment that centers on personal storytelling, community-building, and information-sharing as program participants learn to more effectively pursue career-pathway jobs. The program invests a lot of time “naming and normalizing social capital,” according to Sarem, so that students approach relationships with peers, near-peers, and prospective employers with an eye towards developing and applying networking skills.

COOP likewise centers relationship-building in its design, aimed at ushering low-income college graduates out of underemployment and into upwardly mobile jobs in the tech industry. COOP participants work closely in cohorts of 16 peers paired with four near-peer “Captains,” themselves recent COOP alumni who have successfully secured tech jobs. COOP’s approach directly inspired Climb Hire’s design, a newer model which also emphasizes relationships with fellow “Climbers” and near-peer alumni. Climb Hire specifically supports working adults seeking the Salesforce Administrator Certification and employment in the “new collar” technology economy.

Braven takes a slightly different tack, starting earlier in the pipeline by partnering with large public universities to offer its semester-long, for-credit “Accelerator” course to low-income, first-generation college sophomores and juniors. Students in the course engage with a close cohort of five to eight peers led by Leadership Coaches, many of which are young professionals who work for local employers. Over the course of the semester, students explore their career interests, practice networking and job search skills, and engage in employer-partner projects.

Although all four programs are still relatively new, they are producing some noteworthy outcomes. For example, within six months of completing the program, 80% of Basta graduates secure career-pathway jobs. On average, COOP alumni triple their pre-COOP salaries within one year of completing the program.

Peers for social support… and social leverage

What exactly is generating these outcomes has yet to be studied -- it’s still early days. But as we documented each organizations’ network-building approaches, a few common design decisions kept cropping up: intensive cohort structures, leveraging alumni and local employers as near-peer facilitators and mentors, and making the role of social capital and networks in professional advancement explicit throughout the programs’ curricula.

Most notable, however, is the very central -- and long-term -- role that peers and near-peers play in each model.

By carefully designing cohort experiences that offer a space for vulnerability and sharing personal stories, each organization aims to generate a culture of emotional support and trust within participant peer groups. These designs help students surface and effectively articulate the strengths they have built in overcoming challenges, but that often go unrecognized or overlooked in a traditional college setting. Part of the intent is that exploring and framing their strengths will in turn help them to engage confidently with employers. As one first-generation student participating in a Basta cohort told Bloomberg, “Basta helped us see ourselves differently. ...we’d always assumed we were at a disadvantage, but the program helped us to understand that our backgrounds actually show a lot of resiliency.”

Cohorts, of course, are hardly a novelty in most postsecondary settings. Fellow classmates are often seen as built-in sources of support and camaraderie, and core to the typical “college experience.” But peers and near-peers in these four models aren’t just intended to offer a source of social support; they are also offering social leverage. In other words, they appear to straddle both sides of de Souza Briggs’ two-sided treasure chest: helping graduates to get by and get ahead.

This shows up most clearly in the ways that programs have encouraged peers to share information about job opportunities and company-specific interview tips: rather than relying on staff or employer volunteers alone to bestow new opportunities and advice from on high, in all four models students and recent graduates themselves are explicitly encouraged to share information and advice with one another.

Sharing occurs through a variety of channels. For example, Basta uses Slack to host industry-specific discussions where students can trade interview tips, job opportunities, and industry-relevant news with one another. More formally, Basta enlists recent alumni of the program to serve as resume and cover letter writing coaches, with alumni leveraging their own recent experience to help students tell their stories to employers. This also reflects how programs are blurring the lines between their human capital and social capital strategies. Particularly for COOP, Basta, and Climb Hire, staffing structures that enlist recent alumni as coaches further develop alumni’s leadership skills while fueling a culture of ‘paying it forward’ and reciprocity across participants both past and present.

Designing networks to design a better degree

More robust research could help pinpoint the precise value these peer and near-peer relationships are yielding at various junctures in students’ job searches. One hypothesis, however, is that by cultivating a strong culture of social support, and pairing that with an explicit emphasis on how and why social capital matters, these programs in turn jumpstart a culture of social leverage. That then pays dividends in the job search process as peers are willing to open doors for each other. In other words, by helping each other get by, students get to know themselves and one another such that, further into the job search process, they grow willing and able to help each other get ahead.

The sheer existence of programs like Basta, COOP, Braven, and Climb Hire is something of a referendum on where colleges are still falling short when it comes to ensuring that all graduates -- not just those who are more affluent or arrive at college with existing ties to the knowledge economy -- are poised for labor market success. Their early results suggest that colleges may be leaving real value on the table in failing to fully tap into the peer and near-peer networks that they already possess.

Continuing to study emerging models like these will yield a better understanding of the networks that students need to convert academic credentials into upwardly mobile professions. Applied well, that understanding could open the right doors for students of all backgrounds, without having to knock on so many in the first place.

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, where she leads a team researching the effects of disruptive innovation on the public and private education landscape.

Richard Price is a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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