New study explores the experiences of high-achieving, underserved high school students in an e-mentoring college access program

Arnold, K. D., Deutschlander, D. T., & Lewis, J. S. (2022). Someone on my side: The experiences of high-achieving, underserved high school students in an e-mentoring college access intervention. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 30(4), 381–408.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Practitioners use a variety of approaches, such as mentoring, coaching, and advising, to guide and support lower-income students in applying for college.
  • However, given how spread out low-income students is, in-person mentoring programs are not always feasible.
  • Digital services are a promising solution to bridging the gap between students’ experiences and college structures and procedures.
  • This study examines a national e-mentoring program called CollegePoint, which serves high-achieving high schoolers from low and moderate-income backgrounds.
    • It applied the ecological theory that emphasizes the dynamics between individual people and their environments.
  • Students’ engagement in the program depended on various factors, such as their motivations, personalities, and resources.
  • When engaged mentees received assistance, they felt more confident and at ease with the college application process.
    • They also stated that the e-mentoring program helped them form a realistic perspective on their admission eligibility, meet deadlines, and make thoughtful decisions.
  • Mentors who addressed every aspect of their mentees’ ecologies increased the chances of making a difference in their mentees’ college experiences, as well as their self-concept.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract) 

Lower-income students with outstanding academic credentials often lack the knowledge and support to apply to highly ranked colleges and universities that they would be eligible to attend. This study investigated a national e-mentoring program, CollegePoint, that provided one-to-one mentoring to low- and moderate-income, high-achieving high school students. The 15-month mentoring program covered college choice, application, and financial aid processes. We employed a human ecology theoretical framework that highlights interactions among mentoring experiences, individual characteristics, and multiple environmental contexts. Results of 13 focus groups with e-mentors and interviews with 123 student participants and 8 project directors indicated that the virtual mentoring format was comfortable and often preferable to students. The remote mode of communication allowed for considerable variation in engagement, however, with some students consistently in contact with their mentors and others dropping out temporarily or permanently. Students who remained highly engaged with their mentors were those who needed help, felt a connection to their mentor, and appreciated the arms-length relationship enabled by the virtual format. For these students, e-mentoring gave them a realistic sense of their eligibility for admission to a range of selective colleges and helped them complete time-sensitive tasks and make thoughtful decisions. Consonant with ecological theory, CollegePoint appeared to act as a bridge between students’ immediate contexts and the policies, structures, and procedures related to college admissions and financial aid. When e-mentors were able to engage all aspects of students’ ecology, CollegePoint had the potential to transform the college application experience and even the self-concept of students.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

In-person delivery of college advising has been insufficient to overcome income-based discrepancies in enrollment at selective colleges among academically well-prepared, lower-income high school students (Hoxby & Turner, 2013). CollegePoint was created at the nexus of virtual advising and e-mentoring to respond to the need to increase access to high quality college enrollment for this geographically dispersed population of students. This research investigated how students engaged in the CollegePoint program, how they experienced the intervention, and what barriers existed to successful remotely-delivered advising. Given the embeddedness of e-mentoring within larger systems and structures (Jones & Brown, 2011), we used ecological theory to answer our research questions, highlighting the interaction between individuals and their nested environments. As ecological theory would suggest, students’ engagement in CollegePoint e-mentoring varied according to each individual’s personality, motivations, and resources. Mentees experienced the virtual advising relationship within the constellation of their own roles, relationships, and immediate settings. Barriers to e-mentoring arose at multiple levels: within individuals, immediate contexts, and higher education admission requirements and processes.

Analysis of interview and focus group data shows a range of ecological elements influenced students’ engagement in e-mentoring. Students’ microsystems consisted of pervasive, direct connections with digital technologies (e.g., cell phones), with many students preferring to interact electronically. For this population, concerns about psychological or technical barriers to e-mentoring were not warranted (Bierema & Merriam, 2002). Access to mentors at all times of the day fit students’ busy lives and their need to complete college tasks outside of the school day. Some students felt safer revealing personal information and imperfect application drafts with someone outside of their physical settings and family/friend groups.

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