Three things mentors can do to help get youth through college

Written by Justin Preston, Associate Editor

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have just completed an extensive review of the existing literature on ways of fostering college completion among youth today, and they have identified three specific factors that are not only key to college success, but also are able to be fostered through intervention and support. This is great, actionable news for mentors, and we’ll be getting into not just the competencies, but what mentors can do to help prepare their mentees for college success.

Backing up a bit, let’s review the overall framework of the study. Broadly, the study focused on three domains which were previously identified in a National Research Council study from 2012. These domains included the following:

  1. Intrapersonal competencies which involve self-management, emotion and behavior regulation, and self-regulation in order to reach one’s goals. Think of this along the lines of impulse control, for example.
  2. Interpersonal competencies include expressing information to others as well as understanding and interpreting messages and information received from others. This domain also includes responding appropriately to information received from others. How well are youths able to communicate with those around them?
  3. Cognitive competencies include thinking, reasoning, and related skills.

The body of literature being much more extensive in terms of research around cognitive skills and competencies, the authoring committee was tasked with investigating the other two domains, intra- and interpersonal competencies. This included identifying a host of competencies that could be related to postsecondary success which could be enhanced through intervention. The competencies had to not only be related to success, but they also had to be malleable.

The research committee reviewed the existing literature, covering 49 articles on 61 studies, looking only at studies that included random assignment to one of the study groups (i.e. whether participants involved in a study received the intervention was completely up to chance).

Other criteria for inclusion included having at least 10 respondents in each condition, having less than half of the participants drop out of the study by the study’s conclusion, and that each study included clearly defined experimental, control, and comparison groups.

Through this process, eight total competencies were found to be related to college success in the literature:

  1. Behaviors related to conscientiousness, such as self-control, hard work, persistence, and achievement orientation (how an individual approaches and thinks about challenges and tasks);
  2. Sense of belonging, or how well socially integrated a student is at their college;
  3. Academic self-efficacy, or the student’s belief that they can succeed academically;
  4. Growth mindset, a reflection of the student’s belief that their own intelligence is not a fixed entity, but rather something that can grow and improve;
  5. Utility goals and values, which are personal goals and values that a student believes to be directly connected to the achievement of a desired goal in the future;
  6. Intrinsic goals and interest, or personal goals that a student feels to be rewarding in and of themselves (e.g. “I do this because I love it, not because I have to.”);
  7. Prosocial goals and values as demonstrated in the desire to promote the well-being or development of others or of domains that are bigger than the individual;
  8. Positive future self, where the student holds a positive image of themselves or a personal narrative that is self-constructed to reflect what kind of person they hope to be in the future.

Each of these competencies was shown to be beneficial in promoting positive college outcomes, and all are worth keeping in mind when working with youth. However, some of these competencies are more responsive to intervention (such as mentoring, for example). Specifically, the following three, according to the committee, “generated the largest benefits for underrepresented student groups that are more at risk for academic failure.”

The three areas identified by the team as “promising” are:

  1. Sense of belonging
  2. Growth mindset
  3. Utility goals and values

Fortunately, each of these areas can be creatively and effectively supported via mentoring. Sense of belonging, for example, is one of the key tenets of a mentoring program called the Posse Scholar program aimed at ensuring that students who may be more at risk of dropping out have peers from similar backgrounds and a faculty mentor who helps them navigate college administration, college life, and who serves as an advocate on their behalf.

For more on this program, read an interview published on the Chronicle with Jefferson Singer of Connecticut College, who oversees the Posse Scholar program on the college’s New London, CT, campus.

Another article discusses the potential for integrating a positive youth development framework into mentoring for older adolescents and frameworks to improve sense of belonging and social integration. Providing opportunities for adolescents to develop skill mastery in an activity they enjoy, and opportunities to belong, such as helping your mentee to identify groups or organizations with which they share an interest or affinity, can provide chances for mentees to engage with those around them.

Not only that, simply by fulfilling one of the central roles of being a mentor, providing a supportive relationship, can help to promote more opportunities for mentees to develop a strong sense of belonging once they reach college.

The growth mindset is not necessarily something that can be established immediately. Rather, much like any skill or talent, it can take time to develop. Fortunately, such development can occur over the length of the mentoring relationship. Engaging in activities that require practice to attain mastery can help to offer milestones that clearly demonstrate that one’s skill in a particular task or domain is not a fixed factor, but that it can develop and grow over time.

How often have you heard a mentee or adolescent say, “I’ll never get it, what’s the point?” As a mentor, you have the opportunity to provide them the supportive scaffolding they need to overcome their initial setbacks and develop not only a growth in skills, but their growth mindset as well.

Sometimes, tasks or ideas may seem to be unrelated to adolescents who don’t connect the dots of the larger picture. As a mentor, you have a more experienced viewpoint that can see the bigger intersections of the youth’s goals and future plans. Working through the steps needed to achieve a goal in a clear manner can create a visual “roadmap” that makes it clear to the adolescent as well.

Having trouble working with your mentee to set and meet smaller goals that are a part of that roadmap? It turns out that including small treats to reward goals can help with goal attainment.

There is a lot more to digest in the full report (which is more than 200 pages long, all told), but the summary is a great place to get started. While the field needs to conduct more research to build up the evidence base even further, this report provides a jumping-off point for mentoring programs seeking to boost positive academic outcomes in college.