The Importance of Social Capital

Vanessa Todman, Senior Behavioural Insights Adviser |

As we head into the holiday period, many of our first year students will be spending the next few weeks with family, debriefing on what was (hopefully) a wonderful and (possibly) challenging first term at university. These conversations might involve receiving support from friends and family, talking about new friends and contacts being made, and messaging coursemates about what to focus on to prepare for next term.

These conversations bring to light the issue of ‘social capital’, now a commonly used term in Higher Education, but what is it why does it matter, and how might we influence it?

What is Social Capital?

Social capital refers to the tangible and intangible resources an individual can access via social networks—their friends, family, colleagues and contacts. Social capital is difficult to measure, because it’s closely related to socio-economic factors[i], and because it’s difficult to know whether it’s a cause or a result. If we see a group of students who have strong social capital, does that mean that they levels of social capital have been influenced by each other (in other words, the social capital is a result of the friendship), or does it mean they were drawn together by their already strong social capital (in other words, social capital is a cause of the friendship)?[ii]

However, part of the confusion in this discussion is that people often fail to distinguish between different types of social capital; in particular[iii],

  • Bonds: Links to people based on a sense of common identity (‘people like us’) – such as family, close friends and people who share our culture or values.
  • Bridges: Links that stretch beyond a shared identity; for example, acquaintances, colleagues and associates.

By making this distinction, we can recognise that students with a strong family network, or bonds with people like them, may still benefit from building ties with others outside of their immediate circle. Students who have a lot of friends, may still not have links to people that they feel a common identity with, or who can provide emotional support.

The social capital of under-represented students

Students from under-represented backgrounds often have profound bonding social capital: friends and family who believe in them, support them and challenge them to achieve their best. However, it may be that this strong bonding social capital nonetheless does not give students access to the resources and information that will help them make the step into university and succeed there. In this case, we need to think about helping students build bridging social capital that brings this knowledge and support into their network.

Does social capital matter for equity in university access and participation?

Research suggests that students low socio-economic status backgrounds can have consistently lower grades, and are more likely to drop out of university even after controlling for other factors[iv],[v]. US research has shown that Low-income, first-generation, or minority students are less likely to attend or finish university than their more privileged peers with similar academic qualifications [vi]. Although there may be practical reasons for this, such as lower income, the whole picture is not as clear:

Differentials in attainment start at an early age and continue to widen through to post-compulsory education[vii]. One reason for this may be that the networks of these students, although often strong and supportive in a myriad of ways, may not contain specifically the knowledge they need  in their network about university to make good decisions about where and what to study and their family and peers may not be able to helpfully advise on the best ways to get the most out of their experience (by approaching study a particular way, networking, or seeking help)[viii]

Helping students translate their social capital into university success

More research is needed to fully understand how a person’s social capital can be influenced; however, below are some areas we think have high potential.

1. We can provide information to compensate for low social capital

If key information isn’t coming to students via their networks, we can compensate for that by telling them what they need to know. By providing the core pieces of information that students need to succeed, we may be able to ensure that all students have access to the resources they need to make effective decisions about their future. However, our Welcome Fair trial gives us a note of caution on this: one of the messages we designed to address a suspected information gap may have backfired for low-income students. It’s important to understand what information students want and how they may react to it instead of simply ‘broadcasting’ to them what we think they should know.

2. We can help students’ existing networks support them more effectively

One of the benefits of strong bonding social capital is the group of people who are ready and willing to support students, even if they may not currently know how to do so effectively or realise their support would be valued. For example, we are trialling giving the parent of secondary school students information on possible careers for their child based on the subjects that they are doing well at in school, to help parents advise on possible career paths. In the past, BIT has trialled empowering friends and family to send FE students supportive text messages, an intervention that King’s is testing to see if it could also be applied to Higher Education[ix]. King’s also run a parental engagement project, Parent Power, to help parents campaign on educational issues [x]

3. We can help students build bridges into university

Mentors and buddies can give students a head-start on preparations. Many universities have buddy schemes or pre-induction activities with ambassadors that if effectively implemented may also function to build bridging social capital. Facilitating interactions with faculty is also a powerful form of bridging social capital. However, these schemes often have low take-up, which means they may need to be reviewed to make sure they are appealing to and meeting the needs of students.

4. We can help students bond with their peers

University offers the opportunity to meet a diverse range of people. Being a student is an opportunity to create new bonds that provide belongingness, as well as support and advice. But students from low-income backgrounds seem to be less likely to take up opportunities to build these bonds, such as joining student societies[xi]. We can investigate ways of encouraging students to engage with these opportunities, and build their confidence. However, attempts to engineer peer groups have on occasions backfired[xii], and some evidence suggests that facilitating strong bonds between students may be an obstacle to strong bridges between students and academics[xiii]. This makes robust evaluation particularly important for these types of initiatives.

Where next?

As a sector, we are at the beginning of our understanding of how to support students to build and mobilise their social capital at university. What Works are trialling a variety of ways to increase social capital, including testing different communication approaches, trialling educational videos and using digital platforms to facilitate friendships. We’ll let you know how we get on.

This will be our last post for 2018, so on behalf of everyone at What Works, thank you for reading in 2018, and we hope you have a wonderful festive season and return in 2019 refreshed and energised.

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[ii] Mouw,T. (2006) Estimating the Causal Effect of Social Capital: A review of Recent research Annual Review of Sociology vol32 pp. 79-1002

[iii] Woolcock, M. (1999), “Social Capital: The State of the Notion”, Paper presented at a multidisciplinary seminar on Social Capital: Global and Local Perspectives, Helsinki, April 15. pp.15-41

[iv] HEFCE (2014/03) Differences in Degree Outcomes. Bristol: HEFCE.

[v] HEFCE (2013/15) Higher education and beyond: Outcomes from full-time first-degree study. Bristol: HEFCE.

[vi] Simmons, O. S. (2011). Lost in transition: the implications of social capital for higher education access. Notre Dame Law Rev.87, 205–252.

[vii] Education Endowment Foundation (2017) The Attainment Gap. Available at:

[viii] Tierney, W. (2000). “Power, identity, and the dilemma of college student departure,” in Reworking the Student Departure Puzzle, ed. J. Braxton (Nashville, TN, Vanderbilt University Press), 213–234.

[ix] The Behavioural Insights Team Update Report 2016-17 Available at:


[xi] Burnhill, E (2017) Increase attendance at the Welcome Fair Available at:

[xii] Carrol, S. Sacerdote, B. West, J. (2013) From natural variation to optimal policy? The importance of endogenous peer group formation  Econometrica, Vol. 81, No.3

[xiii] Jensen, D. H., & Jetten, J. (2015). Bridging and bonding interactions in higher education: social capital and students’ academic and professional identity formation. Frontiers in psychology6, 126.

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