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Research & Policy

Empirical Research: Robert Putnam on the link between Social Capital and Education

In "Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance," Robert Putnam explores the hypothesis that community-based social capital improves educational performance. Juxtaposing thirteen state-based social capital indicators with three distinct measures of educational performance, he finds that "nearly three-quarters of the total interstate variance in educational performance is directly explicable in terms of difference in community-based social capital (p69)." That is, in those states where citizens meet, join, vote, and trust at higher levels, educational performance is also higher.


Putnam notes that an analysis of his findings suggests "[social capital] is considerably more important than any other demographic, economic, or purely educational influence in account for interstate differences in educational outcomes (p76)." He cautions, however, that the connection between social capital and education presents some difficult moral issues, including highlighting community differences that have deep historical roots, and the inadvertent complications that come with attempts at building both exclusive and inclusive social capital within communities.


To summarize, he concludes, "...strengthening social capital is not an antiseptic, risk-free strategy for improving education. On the other hand...close connections between schools and communities [lend] credence to the view that revitalizing American community life may be a prerequisite for revitalizing American education. Conversely, this evidence suggests that...a major culprit for the educational misadventures of American youth over the past several decades may be the civic lethargy and social disengagement of American citizens (p87)."


Source: "Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance" appearing in Ravitch, D. & Joseph P. Viteritti. Ed. (2001). Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society. New Haven: Yale University Press, p58-95.

(Written by Olga Heifets, "Community School and Social Capital," February 24, 2004 Vol. III, No. 7 and reprinted with permission from the Coalition for Community Schools,


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Free To Grow is a national program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University.