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Why Mentoring Helps College Students Succeed

Getting students from traditionally disenfranchised populations into college is hard; keeping them on track through graduation can be even harder. But colleges are increasingly discovering that dedicated mentorship programs can have a significant positive impact for students.

“(P)rograms across the country (are) achieving striking results in helping low-income students, students of color and first-generation students succeed in college,” according to an article in The Hechinger Report. New mentoring programs have undergone rigorous study in colleges in New York City, Ohio, Detroit, and Texas, among other places.

“Taken together,” Alexander Mayer and Catherine Brown write in The Hechinger Report, “this body of evidence tells a clear and compelling story: Programs that take a comprehensive approach are working. In fact, this approach is supported by the strongest body of evidence of any strategy aimed at improving college persistence and completion.”  

Students Want To Feel Connected – Even Online

Ted Lai, vice president of student services and success at Calbright College, notes that the important thing isn’t so much the type of mentorship as the fact that students have someone they can turn to – that they’re not doing this alone.

“There are a variety of research articles written in the last two decades that support the benefits of mentorship, both peer mentorship and hierarchical mentorship,” Lai said. “Our own student feedback points to their desire to connect both academically and personally.”

Mentoring is a key part of our programs at Calbright — it’s available to every student — and we’re finding similar success. We’re also expanding those programs to find new ways to give more students new opportunities. The newest approach, Lai said, is the Experiential Learning and Leadership Program (ExLL), in which volunteer students across different programs, who have had success in their curriculum, are taught leadership and mentoring skills. They’ll then hold 1:1 peer mentoring sessions and facilitate group learning with other students.

“We believe that creating these connections will support students emotionally as well as along their academic and career journey with Calbright College,” Lai said.

Practical Support for College Students

But it’s not just about emotional connection: mentors need to be able to help find practical solutions to a wide variety of problems.

“Incoming students often face challenges that extend beyond academics,” said Sergio Estrada, Calbright’s interim enrollment services manager.

Mayer and Brown, in the Hechinger Report, write about the struggle to get Edward Blanco, a child of immigrant parents living outside of Chicago, into college. Working with a mentor, they discovered that:

“Edward’s biggest obstacles weren’t his courses or the tuition bill. Blanco shared a small bedroom with three siblings and had no place to study. His parents needed help with household expenses, so he worked four days a week as a cashier at Medieval Times. There was no public transportation to campus, so he had to navigate around his family’s schedule, getting dropped off and picked up at odd hours.”   

Having a mentor who could help identify and find solutions to these practical problems was the key to Edward’s success in college. 

Calbright integrates such support mechanisms into every aspect of its program design and education model. Students can take their classes online, on their schedule, from any location they want, and pace themselves according to their needs. They have easy access to counselors and success coaches. 

One ongoing issue is making sure every student has easy access to the tools and technology they need to take advantage of an online school. Estrada said that’s why Calbright developed its technology “lending library.”

“Virtual accessibility is crucial,” Estrada said. “So Calbright provides students who need them loaner Chromebooks and wi-fi hot spots. 44% of our current students have requested one or more loaner devices and 26% of our students that have completed a program have used this support to assist them in their completion.”

The most accessible colleges are the ones that support the students as individual people, not just in academics. Research shows that programs like Calbright’s, which combine a strong sense of connection with practical ways of overcoming problems, are a giant step forward in enrolling and retaining non-traditional students.

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