Investing in Communities: Social Capital's Role in Keeping Youth in School

Article excerpt


Many community leaders view economic development as the primary strategy for improving social well-being. One approach to economic development is enhancing the local labor force's human capital through formal education. In this article, we use a social capital framework to analyze how local institutions, specifically families and schools, affect educational achievement among public school students. We explore how social capital in the broader community context mediates the effects of family and school social capital on keeping students in school. Using hierarchical linear models to estimate these contributions, the results reaffirm the vital role of family social capital. They also show that attributes of school and community social capital make important contributions to staying in school. Our results suggest strategies that community development practitioners and local leaders can use to enhance educational outcomes and, in turn, the economic vitality of communities.

Keywords: staying in school, education, social capital, human capital, National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), School District Data Book (SDDB), the Common Core of Data (CCD), the National Center for Education Statistics



Economic development remains an issue of paramount concern in many communities across America. Such a focus seems sensible given the fact that jobs, and the income generated from such employment, are critical to the well-being of individuals, their families, and communities. Though globalization has led to significant changes in many local economies, community well-being also is linked to the development of a labor force with the knowledge and skills necessary to operate in an increasingly complex work environment (Judy & D'Amico, 1997).

Giving reason for pause is Robert Putnam's (2000, p. 325) work, which offers a compelling argument that economic prosperity is a product of extensive positive networks of relationships among local people, firms, and institutions. To Putnam, positive social networks represent the "social capital" of these communities. According to Flora et al. (1992, p. 236), such social networks represent one of three key components of community social infrastructure (the others being the strength of local social institutions and the capabilities of the community's human capital resources). In this context, social infrastructure is defined as the capacity and will for collective action, which provides for residents' social and economic well-being (Flora et al., 1992, p. 234).

This article undertakes a unique examination of social infrastructure by exploring the interplay of two of its dimensions in improving the vitality of its third component. Specifically, we explore how the quality of relationships (i.e., social capital) existing within two important community institutions--the family and schools--are useful in developing the human capital of local youth (as measured by their propensity to stay in school). We also examine how community-level aspects of social capital enhance the academic achievement of youth beyond the contributions made by the family and school. We focus on staying in school because high school completion is an early milestone on an individual's path to prosperity and civic engagement. It is well documented that career earnings of high school dropouts are much lower than the earnings of those who complete additional education, their dependence on a community's social services is higher, and participation in civic affairs is more limited (Beaulieu & Barfield, 2000; President's Council on Sustainable Development, 1996; Teitelbaum & Kaufman, 2002). Moreover, as the proportion of poorly-educated residents increases, the greater is the 'drag' on community efforts to develop its economy.

In the following sections, we describe key features of social capital. (1) In particular, we draw on Ken Wilkinson's (1991) community field theory to elaborate the structural and interactive elements of social capital, which are present in families, schools, and communities, that shape the educational progress of young people (Israel, Beaulieu, & Hartless, 2001; Smith, Beaulieu, & Israel, 1992; Smith, Beaulieu, & Seraphine, 1995). …


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