The Life-Changing Potential of Student Mentorship
Mentoring programs are a common-sense resource for at-risk students
By Kenneth Ward
Four years ago, I received an urgent phone call. A college freshman had made a few wrong choices and was in danger of being expelled. A former public high school student who had been supported by the mentoring program College Bound, which I lead, this young man was reaching out for help. He and his former mentor had stayed in touch through email, even after the young man graduated from high school. His mentor and I were on a flight the next day.
We spoke with his college administrators and helped get the student back on track. Since then, he’s held internships at the White House and the U.S. House of Representatives. This May, he will graduate from college, and his mentor will be in attendance. And next fall, he will become one of our mentors.
This was just one of the many successes I have witnessed as a result of our mentoring at-risk youths in Washington, D.C.
Providing the nation’s students with a consistent and caring adult relationship throughout their high school and college years is a simple, cost-effective way to help ensure that they are prepared to succeed. In fact, mentoring has the power to drive successful academic outcomes for even the lowest-performing high school students.
The public school graduation rate in the nation’s capital rose to 69 percent in 2016, up from 64 percent in 2015. While that statistic reflects a jump of a few percentage points, it’s a superficial quantifier. Getting students out the door is not enough.
I know from experience that too many students receive passing grades and graduate from high school but are unprepared for what follows. Dropping out is no longer just a high school problem. Colleges are seeing their dropout numbers climb. In 2009, the United States’ college-dropout rate exceeded that of high school. In 2013, there were 29.1 million college dropouts vs. 24.5 million from high school.
We must make sure students not only graduate from high school, but also have the tools and the support to succeed once they do. Programs that provide students with trusted adult relationships should consider extending virtual-mentoring support during the college transition. That’s what we do, and that’s what likely saved the college career of the young man who reached out to us four years ago.
“Getting students out the door is not enough.”
According to a 2014 study by the nonprofit MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, one in three young people ages 18 to 21—an estimated 16 million youths—report that they have never had a mentor of any kind, whether a family member or another older adult. For at-risk youths, the numbers are even higher: An estimated 9 million students don’t have mentors.
This is a problem we must remedy. One of the most pressing issues in the District of Columbia is its high school truancy rate, which is at roughly 56 percent. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America reports that students with mentors are 52 percent less likely to skip a day of school than their mentorless peers. And according to the National Mentoring Partnership’s analysis of more than 70 mentoring-program evaluations, a mentor-student relationship creates social, emotional, behavioral, and academic improvements in young people’s development, resulting in higher graduation rates and college enrollment.
Mentored students are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities, and have better relationships with adults. They are also less likely to start using illegal drugs or start drinking alcohol.
One-on-one mentoring programs also offer students more than academic tutoring, including the opportunity to have a confidant and role model. At College Bound, each mentor (a college-educated working professional) meets with an 8th or 9th grader for weekly study sessions. As the relationship continues over the next four to five years, the mentor and the student connect outside the academic space at social gatherings, such as concerts, lectures, or sporting events. Of the nearly 200 students who attend our program over the course of high school, all graduate and go on to attend college.
When adults encourage students to recognize their potential, while also exposing them to opportunities that would otherwise be inaccessible, the difference it can make for students is unparalleled.
As a nation, we can continue to argue over whether we should make school choice programs more available, to wring our hands over how to reinvigorate our public school system, or to blame teachers’ unions for the mess. Or we can expand mentoring programs for students that will have a lasting effect on their lives, well beyond their teenage years. The choice seems obvious.