Youths’ belief in upward mobility challenged: New research and what mentors and programs can do

Posted by Hilary Hurd Anyaso,

New research suggests high school and college students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds have less drive to overcome academic hardships when they harbor doubts about the odds of people with similar backgrounds achieving upward economic mobility.

Three new studies extend previous research demonstrating that low-SES students who see education as a viable path to upward mobility are more inclined to succeed in their educational pursuits despite the numerous academic barriers facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Prior research has shown that students from low-SES backgrounds are motivated to persist during difficult academic experiences when they feel school can concretely contribute to future socioeconomic success,” says Alexander Browman, lead author of the studies.

“Our new studies extend this work by showing that this motivational pathway can be affected by whether or not they feel that that goal of achieving socioeconomic mobility is ultimately possible in the society in which they live.”

In the studies, the researchers either measured students’ beliefs about how attainable mobility was in their society or presented them with information that suggested that mobility was more or less likely to occur in their society.

They found that students from lower-SES backgrounds who had or were led to hold doubts about the likelihood of mobility were less inclined to persist when they faced academic difficulty.

The authors highlight that these findings suggest new potential intervention strategies for motivating students to persist when they experience difficulty at school.

At the same time, they emphasize that their results do not imply that low-SES students who underperform do so simply because they hold misguided beliefs about mobility that can be casually corrected.

“The belief among some low-SES youth and young adults that mobility is unrealistic in their society is likely deep-seated, resulting from a lifetime of concrete experiences that cast doubt upon the plausibility that people from their background can experience mobility in that society,” Browman says.

“What this implies is that in order to promote meaningful sustained academic effort, researchers, educators, and policymakers should consider what sorts of systemic changes to the educational environment might provide these students with concrete routes to mobility that are viable for students from their backgrounds,” Browman explains.


Bottom Line for Mentors

One of the oft-cited reasons mentors are believed to be so important is that they have the potential to serve as a positive role model. This work has a number of implications for programs who seek to support underserved youth from challenging backgrounds.

These studies point to broad, systemic level barriers facing today’s youth, but there is no reason that mentoring programs can’t work to address these issues on a smaller scale.

Mentoring programs who emphasize pairing mentees from low-resource backgrounds with mentors who are from a similar background can serve as more than a supportive figure. They can be a concrete counterexample that success is possible.

For mentors who may come from different backgrounds than their mentees, another approach may be helpful: fostering a growth mindset over a fixed mindset. A growth mindset, essentially, means that an individual believes that their personal traits, such as intelligence and personality, are not fixed, but can change over time.

A fixed mindset, on the other hand, is more of a “what you see is all you get” kind of mentality. Don’t feel that you’re particularly smart? A fixed mindset leaves you believing that will be the case for the rest of your life.

For a lengthier discussion on growth vs fixed mindsets, click here, and here for tips on fostering a growth mindset in youth.

It is important to keep in mind that these courses of action are not intended to “fix” the youth. As the authors state, these beliefs are not springing up because low-SES youth aren’t trying hard enough in school. Rather, consider these as potential tools that can help youth navigate their challenging circumstances with support and guidance.

It can be challenging for youth and mentors both when even trying in school may seem like a waste of time. However, success in school has a number of benefits for the future of America’s youth. Mentors and programs can play a role in keeping youth on track for success.


To read the original research article, click here.