Natural Mentors and Education: Complementary or Compensatory Resources?

teacher student

Summarized by UMass Boston clinical psychology doctoral student Laura Yoviene, MA

Erickson, L., McDonald, S., & Elder, G. (2013). Informal mentors and education: Complementary or compensatory resources? Sociology of Education, 82, 344-367.


The majority of research on mentoring has focused on how it can influence  the lives of disadvantaged youths;  whereas very few studies look at the impact that mentoring plays in the lives of the more general population, including more advantaged youths. Specifically, the role of informal mentoring – or naturally occurring mentoring – has been very understudied in both of these populations. Thus, Erickson, McDonald, and Elder examine the question of whether informal mentoring acts as either a compensatory resource that helps disadvantaged youths “catch up” to their more privileged peers or if it increases the gap between the two by complementing the lives of the already socially advantaged.


This study uses a nationally representative sample of over 14,000 of America’s youth to examine the effect of informal mentors on educational achievement (GPA) and attainment (highest level reached). By using longitudinal and mixed-methods approach (interviews, self-report, transcripts), the effectiveness of having an informal mentor is able to be examined within the context of resource availability for the individual student. Researchers took into account a very comprehensive list of social resources, such as: social background, parental and peer resources, school environment, and personal resources.


Overall, having an informal mentor is strongly related to higher grade achievement, regardless of the resources a student may possess. Despite this finding, disadvantaged youth are significantly less likely to report having a mentor and parental resources were found to be a strong predictor in the presence of mentor relationships.

Specifically, when a child had great parental resources (income, PTA involvement, high parental education) he/she was more likely to have a teacher as a mentor; accordingly, having a teacher mentor was associated with both the highest academic achievement and highest level of education received. Other mentor relationships, such as those with a relative were also found to be highly successful among advantaged youth.


To answer the initial question, “mentoring relationships that develop naturally have the potential for contributing to – rather than reducing – social inequality.”  Results emphasize the importance of considering the greater social context in which mentoring relationships are placed in order to determine both their prevalence and effectiveness. The findings demonstrate that, “disadvantaged youth are least likely to have teacher mentors,” but paradoxically, ” are the most likely to benefit from them.”


Although the benefits of having informal mentors generalize across the population, it is the issue of the initial development of the relationship with an informal mentor that remains a major obstacle for less privileged youth. Thus, the findings help validate the existing efforts of formal mentoring programs to set up disadvantaged youth with mentors.  However, in order to maximize the possible academic outcomes obtainable through mentoring it remains necessary to prioritize policies supporting mentoring programs that facilitate relationships between at-risk youth and teachers.