As we continue forward into a new presidential administration, many of us feel a renewed commitment to support our youngest citizens, especially those from low-income communities, to prepare for bright, productive futures. Every day, adults of all ages and backgrounds take time out of their busy schedules to make a difference in the lives of young people through mentoring. While we know mentors can have a profound impact on young people, there are millions of kids across the country who grow up without a mentor.
Mentoring can take many different forms, from the “Big Brothers, Big Sisters” model where an adult provides holistic support for a child to the corporate model where seasoned leaders impart professionally-oriented advice to those entering the workforce. Yet, all programs can rally around a common mission: preparing young people for success in education and adult life.
Providing young adults with meaningful guidance and support around postsecondary planning is particularly important; college admissions and the ever-important financial aid process are onerous and confusing for even the best-educated students and their families. Many youth and their families do not have access to the advising that could help them effectively navigate this complex process. Therefore, we must re-think how we connect students to high-quality mentors, a shift former First Lady Michelle Obama embraced and championed through her Reach Higher Initiative. Reach Higher encourages all high school students to explore and pursue postsecondary educational opportunities, leveraging technologies that kids engage in every day—like social media and texting—to connect with them and provide support and encouragement around college and financial aid. Even though most students have never met Mrs. Obama, they react with joy and enthusiasm when they receive messages that communicate the First Lady’s interest in and support for their educational goals.
Seeing students’ response to Mrs. Obama’s Up Next campaign reinforces our understanding from multiple studies: young people are most likely to engage in mentoring when they are approached by someone with whom they have or feel a strong connection. This person can be the college counselor they see every day in their school hallway, a college graduate from a similar background who has successfully navigated college-going hurdles, or someone like Mrs. Obama whose story and message resonates deeply with them. Students also value flexibility in their mentoring relationships—having the ability, for instance, to text with an advisor about their college essay while riding the bus home.
When we capitalize on new technologies to engage professional advisors with individual students, we can begin to see real and long-lasting impact. The Reach Higher Initiative is one of a handful of leading programs that are bringing mentoring into the 21st century. Some others, like CollegePoint, a national college advising initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, mobilize current college students and recent graduates to support high school seniors through the college application process over text, Skype, phone, and email. This dynamic makes it possible for almost all students to get the help they need from someone who has recently gone through the same process.
Some programs take it one step further to bridge the gap between high school and college, working with students from the college application process through college graduation. One such organization, Bottom Line, combines in-person and remote mentoring for low-income and first-generation college students to not only get them into college but also to stay in school. Studies provide an early indication that the program has a strong impact on student persistence through their sophomore year. Another organization, Inside Track, mobilizes experienced coaches to reach out to incoming students via multiple channels and provide the needed supports, tools, and assessments to ensure they adjust to and complete college.
As young people continue to adopt new methods of communication and stand at the forefront of new ideas and even entirely new industries, mentoring must continue to evolve to meet the needs of the students we seek to serve. Mentoring models should, for example, observe how young people connect with each other—emojis, GIFs and all—and leverage these new methods of communication. National initiatives like Reach Higher and CollegePoint will continue to serve as important initiatives within a broader movement to support new and continuing college students as they pursue their postsecondary endeavors. If mentors continue to be thoughtful, creative, and innovative, we’ll help to develop a generation of college graduates who will do the same.
Benjamin Castleman is an Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia and the Founder and Director of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab at UVA. Follow him on Twitter at @BenCastleman
This post also appears on the Getting Smart