Do Mentors Help Young Adults Get a College Degree?

There is general consensus that adult mentors—in the form of relatives, coaches, teachers, religious leaders, employers or neighbors—play a critical role in teenagers’ and young adults’ lives. Mentors provide advice on school and work and relationships. They act as role models and offer moral support and encouragement. Mentors also often give teenagers and young adults material assistance. In recent research with graduate student Michael Parrish, I focused on the question of whether mentors help young adults get a college degree.

Social science affirms two important facts concerning adult mentors. First, youth who have mentors in their lives do better emotionally, academically, and employment-wise than youth who do not. The benefits depend somewhat on the type of mentor, but nonetheless the overall trend is that mentors have a positive impact on their mentees’ lives. Secondly, when it comes to doing well in school and going to college, mentors are most beneficial to teenagers from poor and working class families. Intuitively this second finding makes sense, because lower income families have fewer resources to finance higher education or to pay for tutoring or test-prep courses, and they are less likely to be headed by college-educated parents who have direct experience with getting into college and mastering college-level instruction. In other words, existing research suggests mentors raise the average level of education and they also lower the social class disparities in educational attainment by having their biggest effect on poor and working class youth.

Despite the broad recognition that mentors are important for successfully transitioning to adulthood, it is less clear what mentor functions are most consequential for teenagers who aspire to get a college degree—advice, encouragement, role modeling, or material support. It is also unclear just how far the reach is in terms of helping young adults get a degree. My research with Parrish addressed these issues by mapping out the post-secondary experiences of a national cohort of high school graduates (n=7,281), followed from the time they were in middle school or high school to the time they were in their late 20s. Regarding mentoring functions, we found that what mattered most was having an adult mentor who provided emotional support and role modeling—much more so than getting advice from a mentor or material assistance. In accordance with past social science research, we also found that mentors mostly helped poor and working class youth. But the most important finding in our work is that mentors only mattered for getting into college; the odds of actually finishing college and getting a degree are unaffected by whether or not you have a mentor, regardless of social class background.

This research resonates with growing concerns that our “college for all” mentality has resulted in big efforts to increase the college access of under-represented students, but inadequate attention to helping them succeed once enrolled. In the words of sociologist Eric Grodsky, “In the end, we do not know whether the costs of attendance borne by marginal students who are the intended beneficiaries of programs that expand postsecondary participation outweigh the benefits they receive from attendance.” In other words, given the low completion rates for students from poor and working class families, is some college worth what it cost to attend, often financed through college student loans? How can we do a better job of getting students through? Multifaceted campus programs like Florida State’s Center for Academic Retention & Enhancement and associated efforts at FSU to get cash-strapped students over the finish line offer concrete examples of how universities can pick up where adult mentors drop off in helping young adults get a college degree.

The featured picture is from the website MentorMeMD.


 John Reynolds is a Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department. He studies education, mental health and race.

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