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Colleges, on paper, may be deeply interconnected environments. But the emerging portrait of the pre-pandemic campus where everyone knows one another could prove misleading. Physical proximity isn’t a stand-in for actual connection. And based on what students say, higher education’s “tight-knit community” narrative starts to come apart at the seams.

Alumni-reported data from Strada and Gallup reveal that in 2018, fewer than half of students had a mentor in college. Minority students were 34 percent less likely to cite having a professor as a mentor. Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack’s recent research on the experience of low-income students on an elite campus underscores the fact that connection isn’t an equally distributed commodity, even at top schools. In Jack’s words, “access isn’t the same as acceptance.”

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The coronavirus has brought this truth to center stage, as physical-distancing measures shed light on the social disconnect that many students were feeling before the pandemic. Colleges looking to shore up these gaps will need to connect students in new ways. Although by no means a cure-all, technology tools are among the solutions.

Large investments to support online learning have not been matched thus far with investments to support online connecting. That’s because the mainstream ed-tech market has tended to prize content over connection. However, institutions can harness a trove of online ed-tech tools optimized for facilitating relationships and safeguarding security.

Related: Coronavirus accelerates higher education’s trend toward distance learning

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The tools are designed to strengthen campus communities on at least two fronts. First, some platforms can help colleges organize their relationship resources more deliberately and equitably, improving access to professors, peers and alumni. Second, they can show administrators whom they are reaching — and who may be falling through the cracks. Here are three such platforms:

1. PeopleGrove helps students build support networks and get access to mentors from the admissions process through graduation and beyond, all within one platform.

2. Mentor Collective helps colleges train and connect near-peer mentors with students, especially those who might otherwise lack support and connections. Platforms like these help students access both virtual connections and face-to-face meetups, as well as embark on tech careers.

3. Career Karma helps nontraditional candidates navigate coding bootcamp programs and embark on tech careers. At the heart of its model are its online “squads,” or peer networks, which candidates can lean on throughout their journeys.

The model was inspired by the Japanese tradition of a moai — meaning “meeting for a common purpose”— a group of friends who offer one another social, financial, health or spiritual support. Technology tools can help colleges foster tight-knit support networks, or cohorts, that help students get by and get ahead.

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Colleges can use tools like these both to organize their existing networks and to supplement them. Shauntel Garvey, a co-founder and general partner at ed-tech venture capital firm Reach Capital, dubs these “community-driven learning solutions” that “reinforce existing communities, but also create avenues to build up new learning communities that may not be necessarily tied to one physical location.”

In the coming year, what exactly a college “community” looks and feels like remains to be seen.

Distance learning will strain even the closest of communities. It also threatens to expose the pockets of campuses in which connection was never present in the first place. Using technology to nurture close cohorts, expand more equitable access to faculty mentors and foster connections with alumni could mitigate the disastrous effects that social distancing will likely have on student retention and success.

Technology will, of course, only amplify what colleges choose to prioritize. But for campuses trying to sell the high-density, small-world experience that leaders so often tout, relationship-focused technologies could be game-changers. They stand to help students find mentors and one another both online and — eventually — offline.

This story about ed-tech platforms and higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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