How do mentoring relationships affect the college enrollment of first-generation college students?

Glass, L. E. (2023). Social capital and first-generation college students: Examining the relationship between mentoring and college enrollment. Education and Urban Society55(2), 143–174.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • There is a progressively big gap in college graduation rates among first-generation and low-income students.
  • Studies indicate that this notable disparity stems from a lack of familiarity with and accessible information on the college process.
    • While college counselors play an important role in supporting students, not every college has them*.
  • Although first-generation college students may not have a lot of cultural and social capital, mentoring is a promising intervention that can support them.
  • This paper assesses data from a mentoring program to examine how having a college-educated mentor affects college enrollment among graduating high school students.
  • Having more mentors and spending more time with them increase the likelihood of first-generation students enrolling in college.
    • Match length and out-of-program (OOP) time were more meaningful than other types of meetings.
    • Having multiple mentors can expose students to more college-educated people with a variety of experiences and can, in turn, boost their social capital.
  • Given that having a stable project manager (PM) shows positive outcomes, having a trained college counselor as a PM and at least one college-educated mentor encourages the development of a supportive network.
  • Mentorships have the potential to address the disparities between first-generation and non-first-generation college students.

*  = According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, one in five schools doesn’t have college counselors. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract) 

There is an increasingly large disparity in college graduation rates among low-income and first-generation college students. Research suggests that the main reason for this discrepancy is the lack of access to information and knowledge about the college process. First-generation students have fewer people in their social network who went to college and thus cannot help them navigate the difficult and multi-step process of finding, applying, and enrolling in college. Mentoring, however, has been proven to be a successful intervention for helping these populations navigate the post-secondary process. This paper evaluates a school-based hybrid mentoring program to attempt to measure the relationship between mentors and how students in New York City navigated the post-secondary process and enrolled in college. Findings show that program lessons, number of months matched, and meeting out of program are important program elements in increasing a student’s likelihood of graduating high school and enrolling on-time in college.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The current literature on first-generation college students is clear in pointing out many of the challenges this population of students face but leaves researchers with few concrete examples of useful strategies to reduce the gap in post-secondary achievement. Several studies suggest increasing the number of college counselors in schools, but this policy change can be a long and arduous process. As the results above show, the role of a mentor—in place of or in addition to a formal college counselor—in a first-generation college student’s life is promising. Having a college-educated mentor guide a student through the post-secondary process can potentially close the gap between first generation and non-first-generation college students, especially because a large portion of students in the study are the first in their families to go to college.

In sum, more time with a mentor and having more mentors were important for students’ likelihood of enrolling in college. These results support both Coleman’s (1988) concept of trust as a critical component of social capital as well as Gaddis’s (2012) findings from his Big Brothers/Big Sisters study. As mentioned above, length of match and number of mentors were important for high school graduation. Because the meetings were happening outside of the program, this finding could indicate that a strong, trusting relationship was formed and these pairs did not need (or want) the structure of the program to support their relationship. Although this finding does not represent the concept of trust outright, length of match with a college-educated adult (and with the iMentor program) as well as OOP meetings being more meaningful than other meetings, is an indirect but convincing piece of evidence that shows support for the importance of a positive and strong relationship with an adult. At the same time, these findings show that having just one mentor throughout the process is not as important. It is very possible that having the access to more college-educated adults, even if they changed throughout the course of the program, further expanded students’ social capital by exposing them to more college-educated adults from a variety of experiences and/or careers. In the same vein, having a consistent PM also shows positive outcomes for students in the program. These two factors together could suggest a doubling effect of the impact of mentoring: having both a college-educated mentor and a trained college counselor in the form of a PM is creating a college-focused supportive network that magnifies the impact of the mentor (Keller, 2005). When thinking of the sub-types of social capital, having a mentor and being part of the iMentor program is a demonstration of bridging capital (Small, 2010). It could be that this sub-type of social capital is particularly crucial for helping low-income and first-generation students access college. Put another way, this result could be illuminating that consistency in the program, support from all of the people involved (PM, mentor, etc.), regardless of if the mentor changed at one point, is the larger reason for students graduating high school and enrolling and persisting in college. It is the network of people supporting the students, not specifically who those people are.

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