The research is clear: Connections are game changers in helping young people from low-income households achieve upward economic mobility later in life.
The critical role that relationships play in the opportunity equation was well-documented in political scientist Robert Putnam’s 2015 book, Our Kids. Putnam’s argument was further confirmed in recent, large-scale research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his team at Opportunity Insights, who mined 21 billion data points from de-identified Facebook data to discover that cross-class connections were a leading predictor of upward mobility in adulthood. The analysis also offered school-level data charting “economic connectedness”–or lack thereof–within individual high schools and colleges across the country.
What can school systems do with this research? At face value, deeper economic integration across and within schools is a must.
But residential economic segregation is endemic–in fact, in large school districts, economic segregation has increased 47 percent since 1991. At the same time, Chetty’s research suggests that integration alone is not enough. Forging connection requires deliberate steps to overcome “friending bias” that can strain connecting across lines of difference.
In other words, hope is not a strategy. But it doesn’t have to be.
Technological advances in recent decades mean that we don’t have to let history repeat itself, even as segregation persists. Alongside critical, ongoing efforts to integrate schools, education systems can turn to technology tools for forging new relationships across economic divides. What might that look like in practice?
For one student in the Bronx, NY named Daniel, a single relationship–maintained in large part through virtual check-ins–radically expanded his sense of what was possible. Daniel, who would be the first in his family to go to college, hoped to become a software engineer. He was matched with a volunteer mentor, Munim, through the nonprofit iMentor. iMentor, along with a growing supply of online and virtual college access programs, provides a platform and curriculum that blends virtual and face-to-face mentoring.
When he began the program, Daniel expected to go to a local college and live at home. But in their online weekly and once monthly in-person check-ins, Munim saw how talented he was. As they talked about his future, Munim urged Daniel to apply to very selective schools—schools that Daniel hadn’t known about or hadn’t thought were realistic options. With Munim’s support during the college application process, Daniel was accepted to Williams College.
Daniel’s experience provides a powerful, yet singular, snapshot of what just one supportive relationship can offer to help a young person realize their academic and career potential. Today, far more of these stories are possible with technology that enables students’ access to supports by eradicating all-too-common geographic or time constraints.
Scaling these experiences to ensure that Daniel’s journey becomes not just an outlier but common practice for countless other students requires a deep understanding not just of what edtech tools to use, but how to use them effectively.
5 strategies to successfully scale edtech that connects
First, tech shouldn’t offer connections at random; decades of research confirms that similarity breeds trust. Matching algorithms like iMentors’ pair mentors and mentees based on shared interests; in the case of Daniel and Munim, that was a mutual enthusiasm for video games and coding.
Second, tech should foster authentic sharing and reciprocity by spurring conversations. For example, iMentor’s curriculum provides recommendations and specific prompts for what each party should be sharing and doing at each point in its scope and sequence. Other organizations, like Matriculate, recruit virtual coaches who are current college students–just a few years ahead of current high schoolers–in an effort to lend authenticity and credibility to conversations.
Third, online and blended connections should be supported at every step by a trained professional whose express goal is to help foster this connection. For example, the platform iCouldBe, which fosters year-long relationships between students and virtual mentors offers dedicated full-time staff who track and support those connections and intervene if engagement wanes.
Fourth, to reap the greatest benefits, schools should position tech to power lasting connections, rather than fleeting interactions. Repeated and supported interactions build trust; in turn, mentors like Munim can offer myriad resources at different points in time, attuned to their mentees interests and future possibilities. In the case of iMentor, mentors and mentees devote an entire year to building a relationship before mentees make big decisions about their lives in 12th grade.
Fifth, AI tools should wrap around relationships, not replace them. Enterprise tools like ChatGPT and tech tools like Mainstay are already proving that AI can multiply the resources, like information and guidance, at students’ disposal. Yet, research underscores that student relationships are still a critical component in connecting them to opportunities. After all, their findings highlighted the outsized role of social capital amidst the rise of the internet. That suggests that while the internet can provide people with information about the doors and pathways to opportunity, it’s people that open those doors.
Those five investments might sound labor intensive, but the benefits of infrastructure, supports, and taking the long view are well worth it. In the case of iMentor, for example, mentees are 1.5x more likely to enroll in college, and nearly twice as likely to graduate from college as students at peer schools. Without the strategic application of technology, this process of cultivating mentoring relationships for thousands of students each year would be unfeasible, consuming excessive school time and personnel resources.
Expanding the frontier for edtech that connects
There’s a growing stock of technology platforms optimized for authentic human connection, demonstrating unprecedented scale and flexibility in helping people who otherwise might not meet to forge meaningful connections. For example, organizations like Student Success Agency and Beyond 12 are scaling access to virtual “near peers”–those a few steps ahead in age or experience–to coach students into and through postsecondary institutions.
Other tools are fostering conversations among peers across the globe. Soliya, a virtual exchange program, has honed an ability to host online dialogues where participants— mostly university students—discuss often divisive political and social issues with the support of a trained facilitator (many of whom are program alums). Still other companies, like MentorSpaces and Candoor, are designed to help young professionals from historically underrepresented backgrounds have conversations with more seasoned professionals “in the know” who can lend valuable advice and job referrals.
Tools like these amount to a rapidly expanding frontier in edtech that reflect what research is pointing schools toward: benefits abound by powering youth connections to coaches, industry professionals, and peers from a wide array of backgrounds. For schools serving students growing up in poverty, these connections pave a path to economic opportunity in the face of stubborn economic segregation.
Daniel recently graduated from Williams with a BA in math and computer science, and now works as a software engineer for a major financial services company. Munim was able to support Daniel at a critical juncture in his journey. “It was my job to help him bridge his success from high school into college,” Munim said. Looking back, Daniel credits his relationship with Munim with pushing him out of his comfort zone—both in the college application process and in life—to cross a bridge he never knew existed.
These are the very bridges schools need to start building.