60,000 college graduates have spoken: Mentors are a game changer!

graduation man in front of a group of graduation studentsby Jean E.Rhodes

The field of mentoring owes a great debt to the Gallup-Purdue Index, a study whose goal is to  “to conduct the largest representative study of college graduates in United States history.” To date, the team has surveyed 60,000 college graduates, resulting in a 2014 report and another report to be released in the coming weeks. The 2014 report highlights the vital role of mentors in college students’ graduation, ongoing engagement in work, and overall wellbeing.

As the lead author notes,  “We learned that if graduates felt “supported” during college — by professors who cared, made them excited about learning and who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams — their odds of being engaged in work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in their well-being. This finding was true of graduates of all ages and years of graduation; in other words, it’s a career- and life-trajectory game changer.”

In the more recent report, life success was determined by conventional markers (e.g., employment, salary) as well as students’ reports about their satisfaction with 

  • their relationships,
  • their physical health,
  • their community,
  • their economic situation
  • and their sense of purpose.

Once again, college mentors emerged as a key factor accounting for better outcomes overall and greater satisfaction. In particular, as previewed by Frank Bruni in a recent NYTimes column,  satisfaction was predicted, in part by students’ college experience, including whether or not the student

  • developed a relationship with a mentor;
  • took on a project that lasted a semester or more;
  • did a job or internship directly connected to their chosen field;
  • or became deeply involved in a campus organization or activity 

Although readers are cautioned to consider the self-selection biases inherent in survey’s of this nature (i.e., better students seek out mentors and deep involvement in projects), the report found that these effects emerged regardless of the students’ personality.  

Unfortunately,  less than a quarter of national graduates strongly agreed that they had received the support of mentors who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams . Given the vital influence of mentors for educational achievement, career success, and overall life satisfaction, we need to both teach students to “fish” for a support and to stock the pond with caring adults. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Teach students to “fish”–although star students will always find their way to faculty mentors, many students are left behind. Some simply don’t see the value or are too busy. Others feel less entitled or are too embarrassed. To resolve this, colleges should provide training in the skills necessary to do so. Along these lines, my colleagues and I have been developing and evaluating a semester-long course in social networking for college students.
  2. Stock the pond–College networks include many caring adults–not just professors but academic staff, graduate students, advisors, alumni, parents, and others who can serve in this capacity. With additional structure, encouragement, incentives, and training, the the true caring potential of college campuses can be more fully realized.

As the Gallup data, mentors are a key active ingredient in college success, and their influence pays forward across the lifetime. As such, we can not leave this ingredient to chance. Learning how to recruit and effectively engage with mentors and other caring adults, and how to build what Murphy and Kram refer to as a “developmental network,”  is every bit as important as learning many other subjects, perhaps even more so.