The Mentor: An American reality show

by Jean Rhodes

Imagine a reality 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 in Greenwich and Palo Alto would work with 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 work their magic on admissions processes, deploying every imaginable resource and angle (e.g., service stints, meetings with athletic coaches, summer internships, charitable donations) to secure acceptance. If the show was renewed, we could track the students as the contestants helped them navigate their way to and through colleges into their early careers.

Unfortunately, the treasure trove of expertise and connections is rarely shared. And, compounding family inequality is the fact that low-income students have fewer mentors in their extended families and neighborhoods to help them navigate this process. These disadvantages are amplified in nearby schools, where budget constraints translate into fewer teachers, guidance counselors, nurses, and mental health providers per student, and fewer opportunities for the sorts of school-sponsored athletics and extracurricular activities that give rise to informal connections with coaches and other caring adults.  

Even when more marginalized youth do find mentors and enter college, educational and employment systems have a way of magnifying disparities, stacking the odds in favor of more privileged but similarly credentialed students. The families that consolidate their privilege, connections, and access to good jobs may be unaware of the extent to which the system is rigged in their favor. It is easy to forget how much luck is involved in finding mentors who can open doors to amazing opportunitiesfrom access to mentor-rich and privilege-signifying schools and extracurricular activities to having well-connected parents, friends, and neighbors. Although in isolation each opportunity may seem inconsequential, their cumulative impact strengthens a system that disadvantages already marginalized youth. Natural mentors may seem like great equalizers, but their distribution naturally bends toward perpetuating, rather than redressing, inequality.