New study explores first-generation mentoring in college students

Hagler, M. A. (2023). Mentoring first-generation college students: Examining distinct relationship profiles based on interpersonal characteristics, support provision, and educational capital. Journal of Community Psychology.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • While more and more first-generation students are enrolling in college, they are still less likely to receive their bachelor’s degree for various reasons (e.g., a sense of estrangement on college campuses, insufficient academic preparedness, limited social support, etc. ).
  • Although mentoring is a promising approach to supporting first-generation college students, many studies focus on the presence of a mentor (or a lack of one) and define mentoring as a one-to-one relationship.
    • Because it’s common for scholars to ask mentees to pinpoint one of the most important relationships in their life or the overall support they have received from all of their mentors, it overlooks other types of mentoring relationships mentees might have (e.g., it doesn’t account for mentees who have multiple mentors).
  • This study assessed the unique types of non-parental mentorships for first-generation college students based on educational capital, supply of college-related support, and interpersonal traits.
  • The degree of provided college-related support, frequency of remote contact, perceived closeness, and mentors’ educational attainment levels made the three types distinctive.
  • Mentors with educational capital (“high capital supporters” – people with at least a master’s degree) provide the most extensive support for first-generation college students as they make their transition.
    • Provide significant informational and emotional support regarding career and academics, even when interactions were infrequent.
    • Made mentees feel close to them
    • Demonstrates that perceived closeness is associated with all domains of social support
  • Mentors with a bachelor’s degree (“high contact supporters”) provide moderate college-related support.
  • Meanwhile, mentors with have low educational attainment (“background supporters” – people who possess a degree below a bachelor’s) provide the least amount of college-related support.
  • Findings indicate supportiveness and emotional closeness have the potential to promote help-seeking among first-generation college students.
  • Given how uncommon high capital supporters are, policies and practices need to promote them more.
    • For instance, colleges can establish professional development for their staff and develop first-year seminars that integrate mentoring to support first-generation students’ transition to college.
    • Since many high capital supporters in this study were high school or college staff, schools need to provide incentives for high school teachers to develop and maintain mentoring relationships with students transitioning to college.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract) 

The goal of this study was to identify distinct profiles among first-generation college students’ mentoring relationships based on interpersonal characteristics, provision of college-related support, and mentors’ educational capital. First-year, first-generation undergraduates (n = 176) identified up to six mentors, rating various relationship characteristics, the types and degrees of college-related support each mentor provided, and each mentor’s level of educational attainment. Ratings were used as indicators in a multilevel latent profile analysis among mentoring relationships (n = 254), accounting for clustering of multiple mentors within individual participants. A 3-profile solution best fit the data. Profiles were distinguished by closeness, frequency of contact, degree of college-related support provided, and mentors’ educational attainment. Mentors with high educational attainment (“High-Capital Mentors”) provided the most support for college-related issues, even with relatively infrequent contact. During their transition to higher education, first-generation college students appear to receive more active mentoring from adults with educational capital, although other adults may serve important functions not captured by the college-specific measures used in this study.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The goal of this study was to examine and identify distinct profiles among first-generation college students’ relationships with nonparent mentors based on differing interpersonal characteristics, types and degrees of college-related support provided, and educational capital. The study’s methodology addresses several limitations of previous research by focusing on first-gen students, allowing students to nominate up to six different mentors, collecting detailed data on each mentoring relationship, and using person-centered analysis to identify underlying relationship profiles. The 3-profile solution emerged as a strong fit for the data across multiple indices. Profiles were primarily distinguished based on perceived closeness, frequency of remote contact, mentors’ level of educational attainment, and the degree of college-related support provided, as discussed in more detail below.

Some aspects of these results align with Granovetter’s (1973) theory of the “strength of weak ties,” Stanton-Salazar’s (2011) theory of institutional agents, and Gowdy’s emerging typology of core and capital mentors (Gowdy & Hogan, 2021; Gowdy & Spencer, 2021). Granovetter’s theory holds that relationships with individuals outside of one’s immediate social circle (i.e., weak ties) are important because they introduce novel types of support and information which one otherwise could not access. Stanton-Salazar extended this theory by highlighting a specific type of weak tie particularly important for underrepresented students, institutional agents, who are adults with specialized knowledge and resources in educational settings (e.g., teachers, professors). Research by Gowdy and Spencer (2021) and Gowdy and Hogan (2021) have similarly distinguished between capital and core mentors, roughly corresponding to Granovetter’s distinction between weak and strong ties, respectively. In line with these theories, the majority of Background Supporters, whom students rated as lowest across college-relevant support subscales, were extended family members, while a small minority were from academic settings (e.g., former high school teachers, university faculty/staff). Background Supporters had the lowest level of educational attainment (on average, less than a bachelor’s degree). High-Capital Supporters provided a high degree of college-related support across all domains, had the highest level of educational attainment (on average, a master’s degree), and were comprised of the largest proportion of academic faculty/staff. Thus, adults with higher educational capital, especially those embedded in educational institutions, appear to provide first-gen students with specialized support needed to navigate higher education. High-Contact Supporters, who had a Bachelor’s degree, on average, emerged as an intermediate category, providing a moderate level of college-related support.

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