To Reduce Inequality on College Campuses, Invest in Relationships

Proactive student support and mentorship culture is undervalued in academia, writes Becca Spindel Bassett, who studies inequity in higher ed.

By Becca Spindel Bassett, Reprinted from Inside Higher Ed

Colleges are more than departments, buildings, and classes. They are organizations composed of resources and relationships. Supportive campus relationships yield resources so valuable that we shouldn’t sit back and wait for them to form. By proactively investing in relational scaffolding that directs and supports students as they climb toward their goals, colleges will leave fewer students behind.

Decades of research demonstrate positive relationships between interactions with supportive adults and student persistence and engagement. We even see increased student satisfaction. Long-term mentor/mentee relationships are especially valuable. Mentors serve as key resource brokers, providing tangible resources such as letters of recommendation, written feedback, and introductions to contacts. They also provide important intangible resources in the form of encouragement, advice, and advocacy.

Unfortunately, mentor/mentee relationships and the resources they generate are not evenly distributed. In the recent Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, 44 percent of students reported not having a mentor on campus. When asked to identify the biggest barriers they faced in finding mentorship, the top two responses in the survey, supported by Kaplan, were “I don’t know how to find one” (55 percent) and “I don’t know what I would ask a mentor” (45 percent).

These responses point to the ambiguous nature of building relationships with authority figures in college. College staff and faculty often tell students to “get to know their professors,” but the how is rarely explained. And ambiguity begets inequality.

When the path to securing a mentor is unclear, students rely on past socialization experiences from home and school to engage authority figures. Middle-class students (and the small number of low-income students who have attended elite high schools) are often coached to employ assertive strategies of entitlement. These strategies earn middle-class students rewards and assistance from time-strapped faculty. In contrast, low-income students who have been socialized to employ independent strategies of deference keep their distance from authority figures and lose out on key resources and rewards.

As a longtime mentor to an inspiring and tenacious group of low-income, first-generation (LIFG) college students from Mississippi, I get why students are reluctant to engage college professors and staff. Worried how their outreach will be perceived and fearful of losing face, they wait and watch the signals that faculty and staff send them about the rules of engagement. But these signals are often vague and contradictory.

On our weekly small group calls, we often talk through questions like:

  • What do you do when a faculty member encourages you to reach out for help but has not responded to the multiple emails you sent about an upcoming assignment?
  • How do you push back against an adviser’s suggestion without damaging your reputation with them?
  • Which life situations count as personal emergencies and should be shared with your instructor?

While the parents of higher-income, continuing-generation students coach them on how to navigate institutional, academic, and social ambiguity, LIFG students rely on their universities to provide clarity and support.

Over the past seven years of leading the Sunflower County Freedom Project Alumni College Success Program, I’ve seen how some universities do this well. Three of my students attend Berea College, where 98 percent of students receive Pell Grants and the student experience is highly directed and structured. All students are assigned a first-year adviser, who is also the teacher of their first-year writing course. Interactions with faculty and staff are frequent and embedded into the co-curricular experience. All students hold on-campus jobs, and these jobs can change each year and students can advance in seniority, so they get to know a variety of university staff and faculty.

While Berea is unique, more traditional universities can also proactively support mentor relationships. In a comparative study of a flagship university and a regional teaching institution, sociologist Mary Scherer of Sam Houston State University found that while working-class students were less likely to develop faculty mentors at a research-centered “flagship,” they were equally likely as their upper-class peers to develop mentors at teaching-centered “regional.” Faculty at the regional reduced class-based patterns in mentorship by proactively supporting all their students: they offered to write letters of recommendation, invited students to join research groups, and interacted frequently with them in classes.

Unfortunately, this type of proactive student support and mentorship culture is undervalued in academia. Teaching, and certainly not mentorship, will not make or break a tenure candidate. This places the onus on service-oriented faculty, and especially those from historically marginalized groups, to take on a disproportionate share of mentoring labor. Serving as a mentor is highly rewarding — and time-consuming.

One way universities can support mentorship is by both investing in mentoring programs that target LIFG students and rewarding mentors for their labor. A university I recently studied rewards faculty who mentor first-generation students with a course release after two years of program participation.

While creating a formal mentoring program is a good start, it does not guarantee that strong mentor/mentee relationships will be formed.

When I followed first-time participants of two LIFG student success programs at one regional university over the course of their first year, I found that when students needed guidance, they prioritized relationships over roles. Although all students had an assigned success counselor, only students who had formed strong, trusting relationships with their assigned coach reached out to them for help. Others sought help from family, friends, or faculty they trusted.

Further, program structure was key; the mandatory biweekly meeting structure of one program facilitated more consistent relationship building between staff and students than the opt-in structure of the other.

For all students to benefit from supportive relationships with university faculty and staff, first-year courses, experiences, and programs should be structured to include consistent, supportive interactions with adults.

This research points to two key recommendations. Trusting relationships with university staff and faculty can serve as a key mediator between LIFG students and the inequitable, opaque campus environment they encounter. However, these relationships will not form magically.

First, for all students to benefit from supportive relationships with university faculty and staff, first-year courses, experiences, and programs should be structured to include consistent, supportive interactions with adults. The staff, faculty, and administrators who supervise, support, and staff these courses and programs should be symbolically and materially rewarded. Through course releases, influence at decision-making tables, “impact bonuses” and public validation, effective mentors must be visible and valued on campus.

Second, given that many LIFG students are not in formal support programs, a focus on relationship building should permeate the wider university culture. Universities can do this by training all student-facing faculty and staff to serve as mentors to an economically and racially diverse student population.

Higher ed officials are convinced that becoming an excellent researcher requires years of rigorous training, and yet teaching and mentoring are viewed as easily picked up on the job. This is not only inaccurate but insulting to the professionals who have spent years honing these complex and difficult skills. While this cultural shift will take time, university leaders have the ability to establish mentoring and relationship building as key strategic goals on their own campuses. Those who do will be taking a critical step toward advancing equity.

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