College mentors are helpful: But too many students aren’t finding them

Getty E+/SDI Productions/Getty Images

Having a professor, adviser or other mentor can greatly help in navigating college and launching a career, but many students aren’t seeking out such relationships.

By Melissa Ezarik, Inside Higher Ed

In a recent check-in with a University of Kentucky doctoral student, associate professor Melinda Ickes detected an all-too-common issue: overinvolvement. “She was struggling with her mental health, and I said, ‘You need to scale back. What are five things you can take off your plate?’” recalls Ickes. Ickes’s teaching and research focus, on tobacco prevention and education in young people, results in mentoring that helps her both personally and professionally.

“Intrinsically, there’s something to be said for working with students and seeing them grow and flourish as future professionals,” says Ickes, one of four faculty members honored by Kentucky’s Office of Undergraduate Research with a 2021 Excellent Undergraduate Research Mentor Award. “I learn something every time I engage with students. To have meaningful conversations with young people, I need to understand their language and what resonates with them. Engaging with young people is imperative to my success.”

It’s not just a few lucky students who link up with Ickes. Currently she advises and mentors 30 graduate students, plus she is close to the two grad students and eight undergrads involved in the #iCANendthetrend tobacco use prevention effort. “Some students want weekly check-ins, and a lot just want a quick text or message,” she says. “I always send motivational quotes. I’m famous — or infamous — for corny quotes.”

Wearing both adviser and professor hats, Ickes represents two of the three most common categories of mentor uncovered by the latest Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, with support from Kaplan. Of the more than half of students surveyed who have had one or more mentors — someone who was not already a friend or family member who was available to give advice on navigating college and planning for work after college — a professor (56 percent), another student (53 percent) or an academic adviser (42 percent) were most likely to fill that role.

The survey, fielded Sept. 16 to 27 and with 2,003 sophomore, junior and senior respondents from 105 institutions, also found that:

  • Students who graduated from private high schools or who attend private colleges, and legacy students (although legacies were a small part of the sample), are most likely to report having had a mentor.
  • One in five students without a mentor says that’s so because they don’t have access to a formal mentoring program, while nearly nine in 10 of those who participated in such programs were at least somewhat satisfied with them.
  • Three-quarters of students needed, or would want, career advice from a mentor, with about two-thirds of those who have had mentors reporting they did get help in this area.

Mentoring program models vary widely, and mentoring can be part of broader programs. One such example is the Chellgren Fellows program at the University of Kentucky. As chair of the Chellgren Center for Undergraduate Excellence at Kentucky, Philipp Kraemer mentors a group of 35 to 40 fellows, many of whom are interested in applying for prestigious national and international awards (such as Rhodes scholarships). Part of that work involves preparing each student to seek out a research mentor.

Advising functions are at the low end of the mentoring spectrum, and deeper connections involve true collaboration, Kraemer says. “Mentoring is much like a dance, where someone is taking the lead. But it takes two people, with both individuals putting forth some effort.”

For students, that effort can involve finding a mentor, even within formal mentoring initiatives. The leadership development program offered through the National Society of Leadership and Success, an honor society with chapters at 725 colleges, starts with success coaches presenting mentor-seeking tool kits, explains Charles Knippen, president and CEO of the organization. “Mentors are out there, we teach students. It’s just a matter of finding them.” In one exercise, students identify the five people closest to them professionally and start thinking about building a network from there, based on reflections about what they want out of life.

As the Student Voice survey shows, mentors are helping students reflect on what classes to take or major to choose, as well as, naturally, how to launch their careers. The survey also reveals who’s had a mentor, how the connection started and what the relationship looks like — intel to help higher ed leaders and professors better support students (and their mentors).

Profile of a Mentee

Fifty-five percent of students surveyed have had one or more mentors, and about two-thirds of those who have not say they would definitely or maybe like one.

“Some students who do well feel like they don’t need a mentor, and sort of carte blanche say, ‘I’m fine,’” explains Theodorea Regina Berry, vice provost for student learning and academic success and dean of the College of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Central Florida.

It’s a stance she can relate to. As an undergrad at Hampton University in Virginia, Berry recalls a peer mentor assigned to her. “I ignored him for six weeks.” But his persistence paid off, and they eventually connected over being from the same geographic area (she, Philadelphia, he, southern New Jersey).

Confidence is associated with having a mentor. Two-thirds of those who are “extremely certain” about what they’d like to do after graduation have had one, compared to 38 percent of students who are “extremely uncertain” about postgraduation plans. In some cases, confidence may come from prior experiences, including attending a private high school or being a legacy student.

The pandemic may have had a negative impact on students finding mentors, with respondents from the Class of 2021 being least likely to have been mentored (51 percent, versus 56 percent to 59 percent of students less far along in college).

Kraemer, from Kentucky, is not surprised to see indications “that some of the more successful mentees are students who have already benefited from some of the fruits: having been involved in good high schools or parents who are involved. We run a very uneven operation. Many first-generation students have no clue that [getting a mentor] is one of the things they should do.” A first-year student may be referred to the dean’s office and respond, “What is a dean?”

In his experience, students going on to grad school are more likely to succeed when they’ve had quality mentoring experiences, particularly in the area of research.

His Chellgren Fellows could easily be all honors program students, but his team intentionally seeks out “the student who suddenly gets turned on [to college] in their first semester,” he says.

The author of The Privileged Poor — which refers to lower-income undergrads who attended boarding, day or preparatory schools and enter college with the same ease in engaging authority figures as middle-class students — says the Student Voice results align with his research. Students’ college strategies generally come from what they hear at home, says Anthony Abraham Jack, a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and an assistant professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The “doubly disadvantaged student,” from a low-income household who is entering college from local distressed public high school, may well have been told “just keep your head down and do good work.” To these students, mentorship seems like the “wrong way to get ahead,” he adds. “They are more tasked with maintaining order than making connections.”

Barriers to Mentorship’s Benefits

While one-third of students without mentors say they don’t want or need one, other reasons point to a need to educate students about access and purpose. Not knowing how to find a mentor or what they would ask a mentor are noted by the most students as why they aren’t mentees. Some say it’s because they don’t know what mentors do. Others blame not having access to a formal mentoring program.

“We’re here for students who do need the benefit or want the benefit of a mentor,” says Kerry Welch, associate vice president for student engagement and leadership development, and a colleague of Berry’s at Central Florida. “But they may not identify that initially.” Perhaps the wake-up call is a bad grade on a test, or a family circumstance that may lead the student to consider leaving school, says Berry. Faculty and advisers refer students experiencing issues to her office, and they can be assigned a peer academic coach or mentor.

As one UCF survey respondent, who can identify three mentors from her first semester alone, has found, the university has “plentiful resources for someone to get a mentor. Even as a junior, I still get a ton of emails about getting a mentor.”

Welch references the university’s “culture of caring” as a factor influencing informal connections. “Staff buy in to that culture, so that exponentially adds to it. Students really do feel and hear this message that we are here for you,” he says.

Women are much more likely than men — 40 percent versus 14 percent — to express preference for a mentor of the same gender. Yet only 2 percent of respondents selected “it’s difficult to find a mentor who relates to me because of my gender identity” as a reason for not having a mentor.

More than three-quarters of students surveyed say it wouldn’t matter if a mentor had the same racial identity — but that drops to 62 percent when filtered by students of color and even further, to 41 percent, for Black students. The takeaway is not to talk about needs or interests unilaterally when it comes to mentoring efforts.

Quinne Woolley, a 2021 graduate of Whitman College, in Washington State, paired up with Arthur Shemitz, a 2017 alum, after “a giant Zoom meeting” for the Whitman career mentoring program. During that kickoff, which included breakout rooms of two students and potential alumni mentors, Woolley consciously decided not to request an older white male, because she felt they wouldn’t be compatible.

For RoyseAnn Day, a senior at Salem College in North Carolina who went to a diverse public high school, Salem’s women’s institution status isn’t what initially attracted her. However, she has had two female mentors, a professor and a staff member, and she does “feel more comfortable talking to someone I feel more related to.”

More than three-quarters of students surveyed say it wouldn’t matter if a mentor had the same racial identity — but that drops to 62 percent when filtered by students of color and even further, to 41 percent, for Black students.

Welch says the takeaway is not to talk about needs or interests unilaterally when it comes to mentoring efforts. “We need to continue to recognize issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. We need every student to feel valued.”

Enter, Mentor

More than half of students with mentors identify a professor or another student as this connection, with the top meeting places being in class and through a club or organization.

But as Ickes notes, “you can find mentoring relationships anywhere. It’s really just someone to talk with, grab coffee with. It doesn’t have to be a faculty member. The downside is that people staffed by universities really don’t get time or acknowledgment for mentoring.”

Yet the same is typically true for professors and academic advisers. “Professional advisers are overwhelmed, and it’s hard for a faculty member to be a mentor in a class of 200 students,” says Kraemer.

While Berry’s division at UCF has a few programs providing some compensation to professors for mentoring, “faculty are not in most cases rewarded in any kind of way for support they give students,” she says. “I served as a faculty member for more than 20 years and always mentored students, but in most places there was no place to say, ‘This is part of my service to the institution.’”

Regarding peer mentorship, Berry has found “students can be very informative with each other and can also be misinformative with each other.” At Central Florida, some students get training on engaging productively with peers. But these students also experience burnout, so the university has put life coaches in place to support them, she says.

Just about one in five students has met a mentor through a formal program, and such programs vary widely both in scope and value. Ickes compares it to speed dating: “On paper somebody could look like a very good match, but in person you don’t click.”

As one public university student in Texas commented, “I’ve had the school assign me ‘mentors’ before, but the relationship didn’t mean much because we weren’t in frequent contact working toward a common goal.”

A goal for Whitman leaders is “building a scalable, sustainable mentoring model,” says Kimberly Rolfe, director for career development there. The program Woolley participated in (run out of the office now known as the Career and Community Engagement Center), has had three cohorts, running as pilot projects “to glean insight and feedback,” she adds. That work has to date touched 34 mentors and 45 mentees, all of whom are provided a handbook with resources, activity suggestions, a calendar of professional development events and expectations of the roles of participants.

Larger higher ed institutions may have a number of mentor programs targeting student academic interests or demographic groups. Jack cautions against running “a bunch of redundant programs across schools. If five programs do exactly the same thing, something’s wrong with that model.” Creating decentralized programs, he says, is like putting a separate water treatment system in every neighborhood of a city when some families are getting sick, rather than figuring out where polluted water is coming from.

Guide on the Side

Although Woolley’s mentee experience with an alumnus was unusual compared to survey respondents’ mentors, Shemitz has helped her tremendously in preparing for her career and landing a job after graduation from Whitman. “He works in public service, what I really wanted to do,” she says. “Arthur fights for equity and wants to promote progressive policy.”

She had not previously considered a fellowship, but Shemitz shared his experiences with applying for and completing one. “He told me I had impressive experiences on my résumé, and if I wanted to apply, I should,” Woolley says. Not only that, but she prepared to interview for her role as an economic research and program development fellow for a county office in California by connecting with a friend of Shemitz who had held that position a few years prior.

The top types of help students with mentors have gotten are career advice, class selection guidance and student life navigation assistance.

Woolley had asked Shemitz to be a reference for her, but he declined, explaining that he wouldn’t be able to speak to how she performed in a work or academic setting. “I immediately got it,” she says, adding that he did talk her through how best to communicate with other potential references.

Members of the National Society of Leadership and Success can access video content teaching how to make asks of a mentor. “A lot of students think it’s all on that person who has volunteered to help them. But really it’s up to the student,” says Knippen.

When planning for virtual classes at Salem last year, Day reached out to one of her mentors, associate professor of biology Laura Watts, for help determining which classes would still be valuable online and which she should wait for a campus reopening to take. “She gave me the pros and cons of each and was able to steer me in the right direction,” says Day.

Watts, along with Collier Lumpkin, executive director of Salem’s Lucy Rose Center for Leadership & Career Innovation, helped Day solidify her interest in science and goal of attending medical school. Lumpkin, whom Day had met from attending career workshops, helped ensure she took all the necessary steps while applying for an internship shadowing a hospital emergency department, including finding a faculty sponsor and setting up a journal for on-the-job experiences and reflections. Watts, who served as that sponsor, checked in with Day throughout the 11-week internship and provided feedback on the journal.

Now Collier is guiding Day in developing a detailed personal statement for med school applications.

Contact Frequency, Now and Later

Day reached out to her mentors “as needed,” which matches up with what 22 percent of Student Voice respondents think makes sense rather than more or less contact. The most common contact frequency is every couple of weeks. The extremes — daily or quarterly contact — are least common, although Kraemer notes that mentees within lab settings may see mentors daily.

The pandemic’s lockdown phase wound up being helpful to Woolley in initially getting to know her mentor. “He was so accessible, available every evening, as I was available. It was really convenient,” she says.

About two-thirds of student mentees see staying in touch after graduation as at least somewhat likely. Ickes tends to get emails from students who have graduated about weekly, and she will also keep in touch via alumni Facebook groups. “My favorite thing is when they reach out about an aha moment,” she says. One former student who worked with her on tobacco prevention now has a related job as executive director of the American Cancer Society Action Network.

While the goal may be long-term mentorship, says Jack, “it can’t be scripted. We can provide opportunities and fertile soil for these moments to happen, and that is what I want universities to do.” The best mentor in the world, he says, could be around for only a year, but that short-term relationship could be the turning point in a student’s life.

Research has shown the ideal mentor relationship lasts six to 12 months, Knippen says. He hopes students think not about one person who will guide them for the rest of their lives, but rather how multiple people in their network will have an impact.

In the final level of his organization’s leadership development program, students learn to be good mentors themselves. “The idea that they can help anyone with anything other than a college search process is new,” he says. But students can reflect on their accomplishments and, in the end, he sees a buildup of confidence. Mentees realize they now have the skills and can teach someone else what they need to know to be a success.

Additional coverage of this survey: Nine Strategies and Tactics for Ensuring More Students Desire a Mentor and Expanding Opportunities for Connection

To access the resource, please click here.