Imagine a reality television show in which privileged empty nesters competed to help less fortunate high school students gain entry into the nation’s highest ranked colleges and universities. The many parents who had successfully shepherded their children through the admissions process from the comfort of their homes from Greenwich to Palo Alto would be randomly to assigned rising seniors from nearby low-income, resource-bereft communities. They wouldn’t have to travel far, as isolated pockets of privilege and poverty often sit in close proximity to one another. Once paired, the empty nesters would marshal the considerable wisdom and expertise that they gained as they worked the admissions system in favor of their own children over the years. Parents would build on their students’ strengths and talents, and then visit colleges and help their students complete applications while deploying every imaginable resource (private SAT tutors, writing consultants) and angle (service stints, meetings with athletic coaches, charitable donations) to secure acceptance. If the show was renewed, we could track the students as they navigate their way through the elite colleges, perhaps even incorporating a second competition in which the parents opened their rolodexes to help secure internships and entry level jobs.
Unfortunately, the treasure trove of expertise and connections is rarely shared. And, compounding family inequality is the fact that low-income students have fewer outside mentors to help them navigate. In a recent study of over 15,000 nationally representative students, we found that those in the lowest income strata were significantly less likely to have natural mentors. What’s more, the nature of mentoring differed across social class. Poor students were less likely to nominate teachers and other non-family adults who could connect them to opportunities, and the advice that they received was more concrete and practical. By contrast, the highest income youth had a wider array of mentors and were significantly more likely to view these adults as role models. In essence, mentoring seemed to reproduce inequality .
The implications of these disparities are profound. Caring adults are vitally important, helping youth navigate their identities, and opening doors to educational and career paths. Indeed, a recent Gallup survey of over 60,000 college graduates revealed that students who could identify one teacher who cared about them, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams were more likely to graduate, and nearly twice as likely to be thriving emotionally and meaningfully engaged in work post-college. Yet, as budgets for teachers and extracurricular activities shrink, it is the youth in the bottom income sectors that suffer the most. No one institution—whether families, schools, or positive youth development programs—can completely compensate for the social isolation that disenfranchised students are increasingly experiencing, and each institution is stretched by the limitations of the others. Wealthier communities can supplement their diminishing availability with private sources of support, but not so for those who need them most. Few adults feel the imperative to serve as helpful guides to children outside their families or communities and poor students rarely develop the skills and sense of entitlement to approach them.
Short of a reality show or, better yet, less income inequality, we need a campaign to mobilize adults to seek out opportunities to champion other people’s children. Although networks are unlikely to provide high stakes for this pursuit, the true prize is the sense of pride and the joy that comes from basking in the glow of a young person’s success. In the face of seemingly intractable moral, social, and economic issues, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But through the simple act of forging a kind, helpful connection outside our limited spheres, all of us have the capacity to fundamentally improve the prospects of the next generation.