Different friendships matter – Education Next

The school and college closures that have accompanied the pandemic have brought the roles of formal education in making friends and maintaining relationships to the fore in ways few could have imagined. Friendships based on education and other personal relationships, a form of social capital, help prepare young people to seek out opportunities and thrive on a human level. As young people return to schools and colleges for in-person learning, parents, educators and policymakers should consider the importance of these social connections.

A standard New study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and nearly two dozen colleagues published in the journal Nature provides ample food for thought on the importance of social connections, including suggestions on how schools and colleges can foster them. It shows that economic connectivity, or the number of friendships between low-income and high-income people, is a good predictor of a community’s ability to support the upward mobility of young people in the income distribution. All of this is all the more relevant as young people return to class.

The study examines 21 billion Facebook friendships based on data covering 84% of American adults between the ages of 25 and 44. The result is a detailed analysis of how friendships influence economic mobility, as well as a website where entering a zip code, high school, or college shows how common cross-class friendships are in those places. The analysis focuses on three forms of social capital—economic connectedness: the degree to which low- and high-income people interact with each other and become friends; social cohesion: the degree to which communities and social networks are closely linked; and civic engagement: the frequency with which individuals volunteer for community activities.

Cost-effective connectivity

Harvard economist Raj Chetty

The study finds that economic connectedness, or the number of cross-class friendships, is the best available predictor of a community’s ability to foster upward income mobility – even stronger than other measures such as the quality of school, job availability, family structure or racial background in a community. to put on makeup. For example, if low-income children grow up in counties with similar economic ties to the typical child with high-income parents, their future income increases by an average of 20%, which is equivalent to attending about two years of college. It’s not necessarily the friendships themselves that do this. They more likely have what Chetty calls a “downstream effect,” shaping our aspirations and altering our behavior.

Moreover, this relationship between economic connectivity and upward mobility is independent of the wealth or poverty of the place. For example, outcomes for poor children are better even in the poorest postcodes, where the poor have richer friends. The research team concludes that “areas with greater economic connectivity have significant positive causal effects on children’s prospects for upward mobility”.

How social ties are formed varies by income and background. For example, rich people tend to make more friends in college; low-income people make more friends in their neighborhood; middle-class people do it at work. In many cases, these tendencies contribute to limiting cross-class friendships.

Differences across contexts in the number of cross-class friendships low-income people develop stem from a roughly 50/50 mix of two factors. The first is simply the exposure to high-income people that occurs in different settings and institutions that connect people, such as schools, work, or religious organizations. But mere exposure is often not enough. Equally important is the extent to which the setting or institution reduces friendship bias, or our tendency to develop stronger relationships with people from the same background. The rate at which low-income people go beyond exposure to commitment and friendship with high-income people varies across contexts and institutions, suggesting that interactions are encouraged or discouraged by how a setting is structured and an institution functions. For example, academic tracking within schools produces higher friendship bias and limits cross-class friendships, even in schools that are socioeconomically diverse.

In short: exposure + engagement = economic connectivity

Friendly places: a personal detour

On a personal level, as I think back to my childhood in Cleveland, Ohio in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were three places where my cross-class friendships took root and grew. One was the local YMCA, where friendships began to form around age 10, particularly during his two-week summer camp away from home. At the time, it was unusual for someone like me who attended a Catholic elementary school to participate in Y activities rather than those of the Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO. But mom and dad (both high school graduates but no college degrees) thought it would be nice to be with kids I didn’t know. That seems good to me. Another place was about my last elementary and high school years as a youth volunteer and school steward at the Northeast Ohio Red Cross headquarters in downtown Cleveland. Third place was the high school I attended, St. Joseph’s Catholic High School in far east Cleveland.

At all three locations, I met (and, during summer camp, lived with) youth and adults from five counties in northeastern Ohio. They had different racial and ethnic backgrounds and income levels. Camp counselors and staff included laborers, teachers, coaches, leaders of non-profit organizations, lawyers and doctors. I made cross-class friendships with many of these young people and adults. The range of friendships I have developed have opened my eyes to personal and professional possibilities that I never would have imagined if I had stayed in my happy but small Italian-American neighborhood. I cherish those memories and remain friends today with some of the young people I met at the time.

Friendly places: the study

The study explores six places where we make friends or, as Chetty puts it, executives and institutions that can provide opportunities for people: high school, college, church groups, hobby groups, workplaces and neighborhoods. Religious institutions are particularly strong settings for increasing exposure and reducing friendship bias, with recreational groups and the workplace also important.

Secondary schools have different levels of exposure and friendship bias, even among neighboring schools with a similar socioeconomic makeup. For example, large high schools typically exhibit a smaller share of cross-class ties, or worse, friendship bias, because they have less admixture and more income-related cliques. The same is true for more racially diverse schools and those with high advanced placement enrollment and gifted and talented classes. On the other hand, smaller and less racially diverse high schools have more friendships between students from different grades. Greater racial diversity and higher enrollment are also associated with worse college friendship bias.

Friendship bias can be overcome. For example, large high schools may assign students to smaller, intentionally diverse “houses” or “hives.” Their cafeterias, libraries, and science labs can be organized to mix students as they socialize or learn. Extracurricular activities can be structured to mix students from diverse backgrounds.

Charter schools are another contrast. Using public data from the study, my colleague Jeff Dean analyzed the 214 charter high schools in the database. On average, these charter schools outperform 80% of traditional public schools on friendship bias, raising questions for research. For example, do the autonomy, community building, and institutional aspects of public charter schools contribute? Or can their results be explained simply by their smaller size?

The power of friendships

This analysis is consistent with what experts have learned about two types social capital. Bonding social capital develops in like-minded groups, while bonding social capital develops in groups that are racially, professionally, socioeconomically or otherwise mixed. Xavier de Souza Briggs, social scientist observed that bridging social capital is used to ‘get by’ while bridging social capital is to ‘move on’.

These forms of social capital create strong and weak ties, important for our social networks and our ability to collect information about the different opportunities we may have. Strong ties are friends who are mostly like us. They know the same places, information networks and opportunities as we do. Weak ties are acquaintances that we know but are different from us. They are likely to connect us to new networks and opportunities. They are invaluable when we are looking for a new job because they provide us with connections and information that we would not get through our usual networks.

Over time, this combination of new connections and information can have a powerful effect. For example, the researchers’ analysis shows that young people who move out of concentrated poverty and move to an economically diverse neighborhood at an early age tend to do better economically and socially than those who move there at a later age. advanced. Chetty calls this a “dosage effect,” meaning that more dosage over time produces a greater effect.

The closure of schools, virtual learning, etc., at the height of the pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the development of friendships in general and the kinds of cross-class friendships in particular that are essential for upward mobility at long-term life of a young person and their human capacity. flourishing.

As the 1973 hit song Better Midler puts it, “…you gotta have friends.”

And we need to be exposed and engaged with them across classrooms in various groups and institutional settings.

As our youth return to school and college this fall, this research reminds us of the importance of cross-class friendships, social networks, and other personal connections to student success in school and in life.

It’s a welcome back-to-school message for the pandemic recovery.

Bruno V. Manno is Senior Advisor for the Education Program of the Walton Family Foundation and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy.

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