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While in graduate school, Michael Collins met the son of the Texas Commissioner of Higher Education at a party. They hit it off, and the man asked Collins, who studied college and public affairs, to send him his resume.
Collins was looking for an internship at the time, but didn’t take the offer seriously.
“I just thought we were at a party. We were drinking,” he said. “I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll get it for you,’ and I didn’t respond.”
It wasn’t until the man followed up that Collins sent his resume — and eventually secured a paid internship.
“It launched my career in higher education,” he said. “I wasn’t actively trying to make a connection. But looking back, I see how important it was.”
Collins, now vice president of Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit focused on improving the workforce and education systems, attributes his initial inaction to ignorance of the importance of professional social capital. That lack of resources is still common for black college students like him, he said.
Social capital—the connections between people that help communities function and grow—can be nebulous and ill-defined. But getting it, JFF says, is crucial for students and graduates trying to navigate the complex, often unwritten rules that govern the college and professional world.
Now the non-profit organization has released social capital framework for colleges that want to support black students. The guide suggests how to improve institutional policies, from student recruitment to alumni relations. It also places great emphasis on cooperation between universities and employers.
More than a title
Many colleges have recognized and worked to improve the disparity in graduation rates between black and white students. Among black students who entered public four-year colleges in 2016, just over half graduated within six years. National Student Clearinghouse Research Centercompared to nearly three-quarters of their white peers who graduated during that time period.
But while improving degree achievement is important, it alone is not enough to put black students on a path to success, says Collins, who directs JFF’s Center for Racial Economic Equity.
“It’s really important for black people to understand that the workforce is not just about skills and competencies,” he said. “It’s about who knows you have those skills and abilities.”
The framework recommends that colleges build and strengthen their career services offices, including developing relationships with other departments and externally.
Career services should work with academic advisors and regional employers to give students professional connections and an understanding of where their skills will be most valuable in the job market, the guide says.
At the same time, advisers can’t just focus on getting students a degree, Collins said. People on the academic side also need to talk to students about their employment options after graduation. To hear him tell it, he started out with a BA in English, a bunch of books, zero social capital, and little idea of how to get a job in his field.
“I didn’t have anyone to help me understand the implications of the degree program I was in,” Collins said. “The division between academic and career services is a false dichotomy for most people. For most students, college must end in some form of economic reward.”
Guidance and counseling should also be required through the college, not just for first-year students, according to the framework.
Colleges should consider using client relationship management software to track student-counselor appointments, the guide says. It can help standardize procedures, track student performance, and avoid lost papers if there is turnover among guidance staff.
Mentorships are also essential for black students, according to JFF. And not all mentorships need to be deep, time-consuming relationships to deliver value.
Connections can be casual – like acquaintances meeting at a party. Those people can still connect black students to opportunities they might otherwise miss, Collins said.
Given that black workers, especially black women, are less likely to find mentors in the workplace, according to the Harvard Business Reviewit is important that colleges prepare them for success before they graduate.
Looking beyond the classroom, student groups play an important role in social capital, the framework says. Colleges can encourage group leaders to explicitly promote the value of peer networking and resource sharing.
Any changes the guide suggests should be made with black students in mind, Collins said. But he shied away from the idea that they should be based solely on the campus’s black cultural center. The premise of expanding social capital for black students depends on connecting them outside of their normal network, he said. Affinity groups and black centers are important for peer-to-peer connections, but are often silenced in their outreach.
“We want to make sure that black students have access to a whole range of other departments,” Collins said. “They should not be separate and apart from the full programming of the institution.”