Economic connectedness is among the strongest predictors of upward income mobility—stronger than measures like school quality, job availability, family structure, or a community’s racial makeup. For example, if poor children grow up in a neighborhood where 70 percent of their friends are wealthy, their future income increases on average by 20 percent, similar to the effect of attending two or so years of college. This finding holds true for even the poorest zip codes, making it a promising, yet under-discussed, avenue for expanding economic opportunity.
Recent studies by Harvard economist and Opportunity Insights Director Raj Chetty and his colleagues show that friendships that cut across class lines, including those we experience in school, especially high school, play a key role in boosting upward mobility and expanding opportunity in America. These friendships that connect rich and poor—what experts call social capital—produce economic connectedness, which contrasts with friending bias, or associating with those like ourselves, staying within the social networks we know best. Their analysis is based on 72.2 million U.S. Facebook users, 84 percent of U.S. adults, ages twenty-five to forty-four, with 21 billion friendships. It includes a website where entering a zip code, high school, or college shows the degree cross-class friendships exist in communities and schools across the country.
Fostering upward mobility
The friendships themselves aren’t magic. It’s their downstream effect that shapes a person’s aspirations and behavior. The new information they bring often has a multiplier effect over time—i.e., more exposure has a greater effect. These friendships vary from school to school. Large high schools have fewer cross-class and more income-related groupings. So do those with high Advanced Placement enrollment and gifted and talented classes. Conversely, smaller and less racially diverse high schools have “more friendships between students who go on to have low and high [socioeconomic status] in adulthood.”
Schools can work to actively promote cross-class friendships. For example, Chetty cites examples of large high schools that assign students to smaller, more diverse houses or groups and others that restructure cafeterias, libraries, and science labs to build friendships across groups. My Walton Family Foundation colleague Jeff Dean conducted an analysis of the 214 charter high schools on the study’s public database, which suggests that, on average, they perform better than 80 percent of traditional public schools on friending bias—a remarkable finding. It’s not immediately clear why they do so well. Do the autonomy, community-building, and institutional aspects of public charter schools contribute to this? Or are their results explained simply by their smaller size?
Pathway programs create cross-class friendships
A similarly promising avenue to creating these cross-class friendships lies in career pathways education and training programs. These partnership programs connect learners with employers and labor market demands, engaging students and adults from diverse backgrounds with each other and new social networks. Delaware and Tennessee provide two examples of how these programs can work on the state level.
Delaware Pathways was created in 2014 by Democratic Governor Jack Markell to provide college and career preparation for students ages twelve to nineteen, offering them pathways aligned with state and regional economic needs. Pathways include advanced manufacturing, engineering, finance, energy, CISCO networking, environmental science, and health care, focusing on so-called middle-skill jobs such as master electricians and dental hygienists.
Middle school students learn about career options and take career-related courses when they become high school sophomores or juniors. High school students can take college classes at no cost to families, serve as interns, and earn work credentials. In the summer before senior year, students participate in a 240-hour paid internship that lasts through the academic year. The program engages K–12 educators, businesses, postsecondary education, philanthropy, and community organizations—all opportunities for real cross-class relationship-building, showing students the wide range of opportunities available to them.
Drive to 55 Alliance was created in 2015 by Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam as a partnership between the state, the private sector, and nonprofits to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or training certificate by 2025. It creates partnerships among school districts, postsecondary institutions, employers, and community organizations and links programs using the online portal CollegeForTennessee.
The programs include grants for high school graduates attending community or technical colleges and placement with private sector mentors and nonprofit partners; grants to adults earning an associate degree or technical certificate; state certification for K–12 programs that align high school and postsecondary education and training with regional employment opportunities; support for high school seniors not achieving college mathematics benchmarks so they are prepared for college-level work; and support to four-year postsecondary institutions to offer programs aligned with employer workforce needs.
Other programs are local and feature many of the same features with collaborations between K–12 schools, employers, and civic partners, like 3-D Education in Atlanta; YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans; Washington, D.C.,’s CityWorks DC; Cristo Rey, a network of thirty-eight Catholic high schools in twenty-four states; and Wiseburn School District and Da Vinci Charter School in Los Angeles County, awarding associate or bachelor’s degrees through UCLA Extension and El Camino College or College for America. Support is provided to those creating new programs by national organizations like the Pathways to Prosperity Network, P-Tech Schools, and the Linked Learning Alliance.
All these programs weave together education, training, employment, support services, and job placement. They include a wide range of models: apprenticeships and internships; career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary education; career academies; boot camps for acquiring specific knowledge or skills; and staffing, placement, and other support services for job seekers. They create cross-class friendships among students and teachers, coaches, employer mentors, and other supporters from many different backgrounds who establish long-term relationships with young people and help them shape their aspirations and behaviors that introduce them to worlds they’ve not seen and opportunities not imagined.
These diverse programs have five common features: an academic curriculum linked with labor-market needs leading to a recognized credential and decent income; career exposure and work, including engagement with and supervision by adults; advisers helping participants make informed choices, ensuring they complete the program; a written civic compact between employers, trade associations, and community partners; and supportive local, state, and federal policies that make these programs possible.
There’s evidence these programs are successful. The federal Administration for Children and Families Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse reviewed over 8,000 research studies identifying 221 pathways interventions, concluding “…that 38 percent of the examined interventions improved outcomes in at least one domain of interest to the Pathways Clearinghouse.” The OECD examined the link between teenage activities, experiences, and adult career outcomes in eight countries, concluding that there is “...evidence that secondary school students who explore, experience, and think about their futures in work frequently encounter lower levels of unemployment, receive higher wages, and are happier in their careers as adults.”
These programs create what experts call strong and weak ties, important to our social networking and ability to collect information about different opportunities we might have. Strong ties are with those most like us. They know the same places, information networks, and opportunities we do. Weak ties are with those who are different from us and likely to connect us to new networks and opportunities. They are especially valuable when we’re looking for a new job: they provide us with new connections and information we wouldn’t get through our usual networks. Cross-class friendships do exactly this.
These relationships create opportunity pluralism: offering individuals many pathways to work, career, and opportunity. This is different from the old high school vocational education that tracked students into occupations based on family backgrounds and other demographic characteristics. It opens up the world of opportunities to students, improving their life outcomes by giving them the chance to choose what is best for them, not limited to what those around them have chosen.
The pathways approach helps individuals develop an occupational identity and vocational self. It also can yield faster and cheaper pathways to jobs and careers. Through the cross-class friendships they create, they have the potential to boost a young person’s long-term social and economic mobility without assuming that college for all is the sole pathway to the good life.