Well-structured organizations can create valuable social connections for disadvantaged students

For much of her life, Amanda Barrett Cox wanted to understand how people use the privilege they were born into or later acquire.

Cox, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Graduate School of Education, grew up in what she described as a privileged environment in Arkansas. This spurred her interest in the topic.

As a boarding school teacher, her pre–grad school job, she learned of her students’ involvement in Launch (an alias to protect confidentiality), one of many programs that readies low-income students and minorities to attend elite boarding high schools. The ultimate aim is to expand the types of people who become working professionals with salaried positions by improving educational opportunities at secondary and college levels.

With permission from Launch, Cox began studying the organization’s structure. She ultimately discerned three tiers: cohorts, akin to grade level in a typical school; older students still in the program; and mentors who had completed it and then attended top colleges and universities.

The program emphasized that within the cohorts, students rely on each other like family. Cox saw this as a “horizontal tie,” a peer-to-peer resource for those experiencing the same ups and downs and program challenges. The two other levels she called “vertical ties” to get at the idea of students with more experience offering input and assistance to those with less.

“With the outgoing kids who have already done a little more than a year in the program, they try to create a ‘big-brother/big-sister’ relationship, which gives current students information from those one step ahead in the process,” Cox says. “The mentors, these are kids from similar racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. They tend to be juniors or seniors or just out of college.”

She concluded that this three-pronged approach offered Launch students vast resources they wouldn’t otherwise have had. The design of the program offers the comfort and practical help of peers, as well as valuable information and advice from current participants and graduates. Cox says students could easily feel alone or overwhelmed without such a structure providing them with relationships that reach both “across” and “up” within the organization, and then within the boarding schools they will attend. Many of the students who have been through the program are the first in their families to attend college, and once they enter boarding school, their life experiences often create both geographic and social distance between themselves and their old neighborhoods and friends. She says the program’s structure creates relationships that students can draw on for academic, social, and emotional support. 

Cox says she believes the notion of creating valuable social connections extends to organizational structure more broadly.

“The organizations that people participate in have ways of structuring relationships among their participants,” she says. “That in itself can lead to people having more or less valuable social connections.” And, she adds, organizations have a choice about whether or not to use structure intentionally and beneficially.

“The resources people get from social connections, what researchers call social capital, vary a lot,” Cox says. “Research has found that people who are already relatively privileged—who are white, more educated, higher income—tend to have larger and more useful social networks than people who don’t have those characteristics. Understanding how that inequality gets produced is really important.”

Cox published the findings in the journal Sociology of Education.