National Bureau of Economic Research report explores how natural mentors contribute to students’ long-term academic success

Kraft, M. A., Bolves, A. J., & Hurd, N. M. (2023). How informal mentoring by teachers, counselors, and coaches supports students’ long-run academic success. National Bureau of Economic Research.

© 2023 by Matthew A. Kraft, Alexander J. Bolves, and Noelle M. Hurd

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Schools are institutions that foster academic skills that have positive implications for youths’ futures and provide a space for youth and adults to interact regularly.
  • This paper discussed how daily interactions with teachers, coaches, and counselors transform into informal mentorships that last beyond their time in the classroom or team.
    • In other words, it proposes a new perspective on evaluating how formal education can strengthen human capital formation – namely, that schools are “incubators” of natural mentorships.
    • More specifically, it utilized longitudinal data from a nationally representative adolescent sample to assess the nature, frequency, and school-level correlates of school-based mentorships. It additionally evaluated their consequences for students’ human capital formation.
  • Natural mentoring relationships between students and school staff members are common and are associated with positive outcomes.
    • In the short term, being in a natural mentoring relationship boosts GPA and acquired credits while reducing the chances of failing high school courses.
    • In the long term, students who benefitted the most from school-based mentorships have a notably higher chance of attending college and finishing approximately two-thirds of a year of formal education.
  • The prevalence and frequency of natural school-based mentorships varied across schools and students.
    • Not all students have equal opportunities to establish school-based mentorships. For example, Latinx, Black, and low-socioeconomic students are less likely to have one (this partially stems from a lack of representation among school staff).
  • While natural mentoring is helpful for all students, low-SES students would benefit the most from it.
  • Having a school culture where youths have a strong sense of belonging and having small class sizes are essential predictors of having a natural mentor.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

We document a largely unrecognized pathway through which schools promote human capital development – by fostering informal mentoring relationships between students and teachers, counselors, and coaches. Using longitudinal data from a nationally representative sample of adolescents, we explore the nature and consequences of natural mentoring relationships by leveraging within-student variation in the timing of mentorship formation as well as differences in exposure among pairs of twins, best friends, and romantic partners. Results across difference-in-differences and pair fixed-effect specifications show consistent and meaningful positive effects on student attainment, with a conservative estimate of a 9.4 percentage point increase in college attendance. Effects are largest for students of lower socioeconomic status and robust to controls for individual characteristics and bounding exercises for selection on unobservables. Smaller class sizes and a school culture where students have a strong sense of belonging are important school-level predictors of having a K-12 natural mentor.

Implications (Reprinted from the Conclusion)

Schools serve as a cornerstone institution in society, generating substantial benefits for both individual students and the general public. Inside schools, students develop academic skills and content knowledge that have large returns in the labor market. Classroom learning, however, is not the only benefit schools provide. They also serve as social institutions where students interact with adults on a daily basis. Our paper highlights how these interactions can lead to the development of naturally occurring mentoring relationships with teachers, counselors, and coaches that extend well beyond when students leave their classrooms or team.

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