Peer mentoring programs have enormous potential….but there’s a catch

By Jean Rhodes

In a recent meta-analysis, my colleagues and I found that the effect size for cross‐age peer mentoring was more than double that observed in previous meta‐analyses of intergenerational mentoring. We concluded that “cross‐age peer mentoring can offer feasible and efficient opportunities to have older peers mentor youth with the potential for mutual benefit.”

This may be particularly true for students transitioning to and through college. Peers who have recently navigated the same systems are often seen by classmates as less-intimidating, more approachable, and more credible than university staff. In fact, peers are generally considered the most important influence on college students’ social and emotional functioning. We recently found peer support to be a positive predictor of a range of positive outcomes in first year students, including grades, sense of belonging, and well-being (Werntz et al., in preparation).

More generally, research has shown that peers can:

  • shape attitudes and habits around healthy behavior, decision-making, and help-seeking, and are the most common source of support when students experience distress.
  • normalize the challenges associated with transitioning to and through college, drawing on their recent experience to provide credible advice and help students identify and access campus resources as needed.
  • reduce barriers to obtaining support by making referrals, offering personalized feedback, and ensuring follow-through to assist students in meeting goals.
  • nudge students to complete common tasks, which can reduce procrastination, cognitive load (i.e., information that working memory must hold), and stress, and can increase perceived support and improve academic outcomes.
  • deliver early-stage psychological and supportive interventions, often as effectively as professional providers, when given adequate training, support and supervision. Indeed, systematic reviews of paid peer supporters in non-college settings suggest that peers and clinicians perform equally to – if not better than –  professionals on a range of mental health and life satisfaction outcomes.

Despite their potential to bridge gaps in services, most college-based peer mentoring programs are not grounded in evidence. They emphasize nonspecific, relational approaches, and provide uneven training and oversight, which, according to meta-analytic evidence, results in small to non-existent effects on students’ psychological, academic, and behavioral difficulties. 

As noted, our research has shown that cross-age peer-mentoring programs are significantly more effective than intergenerational mentoring, but here’s the catch–only when mentors are provided with training and clear guidance. Results indicate a medium-sized overall effect of peer mentoring programs when there is moderate to heavy oversight and training of peers (g=0.45), but no measurable effects (g=0.03) when there is low oversight.

Particularly given the enormous potential of peer mentors to provide student support, these studies suggest a need for scalable college peer-mentoring approaches that (a) provide sufficient training and oversight; (b) are grounded in targeted, goal-focused approaches; and (c) grounded in evidence.