The Role of Social Capital in College Access and Completion

Natural ability, intelligence, education and effort only get one so far in life. Beyond that, individuals need to tap into external resources in order to be successful. They need social capital. Sounds like a buzz word, right? It is, and it’s being talked about a lot right now, but the concept of social capital is really quite straightforward. Simply put, social capital is a network of information and resources from which an individual benefits.

Probably the easiest-to-understand application is how social capital is related to one’s professional life. A strong professional network helps individuals achieve their career goals. But 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.

How are social capital and college access and completion linked?

Social capital and college access are linked in several ways. First, it can be linked to access to information about career possibilities and the educational pathways to those careers. High school students from higher-income, suburban backgrounds see a wide variety of career options and can count on friends and family members to help them explore different careers and answer questions about how to pursue them. For first-generation and low-income students, their exposure is much more limited. They know about doctors and nurses, for example, but they don’t know about other opportunities in health care, like phlebotomy or radiology. This limited exposure often also creates limits for what they think they’re capable of, which influences the postsecondary choices they make.

Second, social capital is linked to access to information and resources about the college process. Again, students from more affluent backgrounds have social capital in that they have friends and family members who have gone to college and gotten a degree – people who understand the cumbersome process and the milestones that must be met in order to enroll in a postsecondary program. These are also people who can advocate on behalf of the student when he or she encounters a problem. First-generation and low-income students often do not have that social capital or support system when they embark on the college-going process. Despite good intentions among friends and family members, the system is set up to support those who already know how to navigate it. College visits, completing admissions applications, applying for financial aid, etc. are things that it is assumed everyone does or knows to do as they prepare for life after high school. But for a low-income student, going on a college visit is often challenging due to lack of transportation. A first-generation student may get through college applications and the financial aid process but might not know the difference between a grant and a loan and could wind up making a poor financial decision as a result. Long story short, having social capital in the form of someone who has been through the process is critical to student success.

College Now’s approach to building social capital

Again, students need a significant amount of support as they begin thinking about life after high school. The process of planning for postsecondary education is challenging for all students – but first-generation and low-income students often lack the social capital necessary to make informed decisions about what comes next and are essentially on their own to find their way through the labyrinth of the processes and deadlines related to the college-going process.

College Now works to help first-generation, low-income students access and build social capital in several ways. First, while students are still in high school, our advisors serve as the adult in a student’s life who has successfully navigated the postsecondary process. With advisors embedded within more than 80 Greater Cleveland schools, College Now becomes the link between students and information, resources and advocacy. Our advisors help them learn about careers and the educational pathways that lead to them; facilitate ACT/SAT prep; walk them through the application and financial aid process; advocate to schools on the students’ behalf; help them determine which educational option is their best fit; and support them through the transition to college.

Once they’re in college, College Now helps its scholarship recipients build social capital through its Mentoring Program. Each student is paired with a professional in the community whose “job” it is to be a completion coach of sorts – basically, to help the mentee overcome any obstacle (big or small) that might interfere with his or her ability to complete a degree. And, in many cases, the mentor helps his or her mentee build a professional network through which the student can find internships and jobs. In a lot of ways, finding a job when you’re fresh out of college is more a matter of who you know, not what you know; and for first-generation and low-income students, having help getting a foot in the door makes all the difference.

From high school to college to that first foray into the professional world and beyond, social capital is an extremely helpful resource. It is not something that everyone is born with, but social capital is something that organizations like College Now are committed to ensuring that all students acquire to enable them to find educational and professional success.

Planning an Impactful College Visit for First-Gen, Low-Income Students

Summer is college visit season, an important part of the college process for all students but especially for first-generation and low-income students. Visiting colleges can be an overwhelming experience for students, but it can be particularly overwhelming for students from this group who often lack exposure to colleges and campus life because they do not have an adult in their lives who has been to college. As a result, it is critical to create a college visit experience that will resonate with them and help them feel comfortable with the process.

At College Now, we take students on college visits year-round, and here are a few suggestions for how to make college visits meaningful to first-gen and low-income students:

Prepare in Advance

Don’t go into a college visit cold. Have your student do research about the school you’re going to visit ahead of time. What majors/minors do they offer? What student organizations could they join? What percentage of students live on-campus vs. off-campus? These are a few things to keep in mind as you help your student prepare.

In addition, your student can send his or her transcript to the college’s admissions office ahead of your visit. This demonstrates your student’s interest and can help the college tailor your visit to your student’s interests and needs.

Focus on Financial Aid

For first-generation and low-income students, their main concern when on a college visit is “Can I really afford to do this?” So, while the campus tour and the admissions spiel are important, too, try to tailor your visit so that the focus is on financial aid, as opposed to just admissions. Meet with a financial aid counselor, who can explain everything that goes into the cost of attendance, the financial aid options available to them and any additional programs the individual school might have to support them.

Make Connections to On-Campus Resources

This is important for ALL students, but it’s especially important for first-generation and low-income students. There are many on-campus resources available to ensure students are as successful as possible. Make sure you seek out information on support services that are available on campus like the writing and math center, tutoring, ESL, multicultural affairs, etc. Helping students make connections to services that are available to help them makes it more likely that they will seek out those resources should they need them when they arrive on campus.

Seek out the First-Year Experience

Often, admissions tours show you the shiny, new facilities on campus; and while they’re impressive and exciting, it’s also important that students see where they’ll be spending their time freshman year – spoiler alert: freshmen don’t often spend a lot of time in the newer buildings! Make sure your student has an opportunity to see the freshman dorms and the dining halls. Check out the academic buildings in which your student will have class – this is particularly important if he or she already has a major in mind.

And, speaking of classes, try to sit in on one to give your student a taste of what college-level coursework is like. Even students who are in honors classes in high school find the rigor of college classes to be more than they expected. Seeing a college class first-hand will help your student understand the amount of work it will take to be successful in college as compared to high school.

Keep in Mind that the Students Selected by the School to Engage Your Student Can Make or Break the Visit

The college students you see on campus during your visit are critical to the impression the school leaves on your student. A big reason people do college visits is to help students visualize what it would be like to attend that particular school. Having a tour guide or staff member versed in the issues facing first-gen and low-income students who can accurately answer your student’s questions is really important. Additionally, seeing a student panel where diversity is reflected and your student can see someone who looks like him or her – in terms of race/ethnicity, academic performance, income-level, major of interest, etc. – helps him or her see how he or she could potentially find his or her place on campus. And, if your student is interested in a specific student organization or sport, see if the admissions office can arrange a meeting with that organization’s leaders or coaching staff.

These are just a few ways to ensure that your first-generation, low-income student comes away from a college visit with the information he or she needs to make an informed decision about whether or not a school is the right fit. It is by no means an exhaustive list. What tips do you have for successful college visits?


Tips for a Successful Freshman Year of College

As summer draws to a close, many students are embarking on one of the biggest adventures of their lives so far – their freshman year of college.

While starting college is certainly an exciting time, it can also be overwhelming and filled with some apprehension. Even if a student was successful in high school, college can be a different ballgame altogether. It’s important to remain on top of that game, and College Now has some tips and tricks for freshmen college students to ensure everyone has a successful first year.

These are just a few tips to help you make the transition to college easier. And, as always, College Now is a resource for all things college. If you run into a problem, call our Resource Center at 216.635.0151 and talk to one of our advisors who can help you troubleshoot and stay on track.