Who gets mentored? Reflections on a new national survey
By Jean Rhodes
MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership recently released the results of an impressive new survey of the childhood mentoring experience of 2,639 adults. It’s a long report– 63 page, 7 Table, 44 figures–so I thought I’d provide a summary and analysis. This is by no means comprehensive. The focus is largely on the prevalence of natural mentors, so I urge you to look over the report. Additional findings will be discussed in future columns.
Trends in mentoring
So let’s get started with the headline. The survey showed that adults who were 40 and younger were 2-3 times more likely to say that they had been matched with a mentor through a program growing up than older adults. This makes sense, given that the vast majority of mentoring programs only date back as far as the 1990s. In recent years, however, the rate of formal mentoring appears to have plateaued at around 25%. Although additional recruitment, retention, and program improvement efforts are vitally important, the fact that 1 in 4 young people report having had a formal mentor is actually pretty encouraging. Additionally, this prevalence rate suggests that respondents may have defined program mentoring in ways that are more encompassing than the traditional year-long commitment.
The report provides rich data on natural mentoring, including the concerning loss of natural mentoring in recent years.
In particular, 56% of 25-40 year olds reporting having had a natural mentor growing up compared to just 49% of 18 to 24 year olds. It may be the case that the Millenials are the outliers, as the rates are fairly similar across the other generational cohorts. But it is concerning that there has been a dip rather than an expansion of opportunities. This loss in the availability of support from family, friends, teachers, coaches, after school staff, camp counselors, clergy, and other caring adults to serve as mentors to youth may be related to the loss of face-to-face contact stemming from the pandemic and the shift toward digital communication more generally. It is likely related to the concentration of wealth and social capital in recent decades. Indeed, like so many other valuable resources, natural mentors are unequally distributed—and those neighborhoods and schools that are already rich in natural mentors are only getting richer. The social fabric is stretched particularly thin in low-income urban communities. Neighborhood disadvantages are then 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. In our studies, we have found that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are far less likely to report having high-quality ties and mentorships with teachers and guidance counselors and, in fact, report lower overall relationship quality with these important adults. Even when they’re available, less advantaged youth often do not feel the same sense of entitlement to their teachers, coaches, and counselors’ support, and are less likely than their upper- and middle-class peers to seek help from them. Less-advantaged youth have not been socialized to think strategically about cultivating and maintaining these ties and are less likely to have help from their parents in managing their relationships with teachers, with whom strong connections can have lasting positive effects.
We see this in Figure 5, which shows that natural mentoring relationships were much more prevalent among youth growing up in wealthier households. For example, respondents from upper middle/wealthy classes were much more likely to say that they had a natural mentor growing up compared to those in working class and poor/low income (56% vs. 45%).
Let’s jump now to Figure 37, where we see that “friends of the family,” constituted the most common source of natural mentors across most age groups, a finding that again highlights the importance of family’s social networks. Teachers were also a common source of natural mentors, particularly during childhood and adolescence. A close relationship with a teacher can boost students’ academic motivation, interest, and performance, as well as their overall attachment to school, over and above parent and family support. In fact, some experts have concluded that at least one strong relationship with a teacher is the “single most important ingredient” for vulnerable adolescents’ academic development and success.
Interesting, respondents across all age groups said the biggest barrier to mentorship was that they didn’t know how to find a mentor, while the second biggest barrier was that they didn’t see the value. This highlights the importance of programs like Connected Scholars in helping youth both appreciate the importance of mentors and develop the skills to recruit them.
Fortunately, a growing number of innovative programs have emerged that successfully target the social fragmentation and isolation that affect so many communities. The approaches involve both teaching youth to “fish” for mentors (i.e., to recruit natural mentors) and “stocking the pond” (i.e., expanding the availability of high-social capital adults in marginalized youth’s lives). The National Guard Youth Challenge Program, an intensive quasi-military program for adolescents who have dropped out of high school, has successfully deployed the youth-initiated mentoring approach. Connected Scholars, an extension of this approach, high school and college students are provided with the strategies and skills to cultivate a network of supportive adults, rather than a single mentoring relationship. Compared to incoming college students who were provided only with information, incoming students who were assigned to a four-session intervention in which they learned how to recruit faculty and staff support had stronger ties with faculty members, higher grade-point averages, and less help-avoidance at the end of their freshman year. Other networking approaches help students choose a non-parental adult to attend skill-building workshops with them or help to connect youth who are aging out of (or at risk of entering) the foster care system. Most recently, researchers have shown that suicidal youth who learned to recruit caring adults had lower levels of mortality nearly fifteen years later than their counterparts who did not.
Of course, the onus for locating and recruiting mentors need not rest solely with youth. Adults in many settings—such as schools, Little League, juvenile courts, neighborhoods, and workplaces—are afforded many opportunities to mentor youth. But, because mentoring is typically seen as a byproduct but not a central mission of many youth services and settings, adults are rarely provided with specific training around building strong relationships. A range of factors, from frequent staff turnover to fears of being accused of acting inappropriately, can further dampen adults’ willingness to build strong intergenerational relationships. Thus, in addition to teaching youth to fish, strategies that cultivate what the report calls a “mentoring mindset” are needed across all settings. Effectively stocking the pond with trained, intentionally supportive adults will be vitally important if we are to reverse the trends highlighted in this valuable report.
Taken together the results argued for a more inclusive model of mentoring—one that expands the focus from formal one-on-one “treatment” approaches to more broadly strengthening networks of supportive intergenerational connections. When finding a natural mentor is left to chance, the odds favor more privileged youth. Such youth grow up in settings with greater access to the kinds of caring adults who can serve as role models that connect them to further educational and career networks and opportunities. Addressing this inequality will require that we ensure that disadvantaged settings develop innovative ways to support youth’s capacity to find and recruit such adults. The field of youth mentoring is ripe for this sort of innovation.