As the value of higher education is increasingly called into question, institutions have been forced to prove their worth to students who are investing a significant amount of time, money, and grit into their education. But a new poll by Elon University suggests there’s one element of the student experience that seems more likely to make college worth the investment: mentors.
To conduct the poll, three researchers—Leo Lambert, President Emeritus at Elon; Jason Husser, Director of the Elon Poll; and Peter Felten, Assistant Provost for Teaching and Executive Director of Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning—surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 4,000 U.S. college graduates holding a bachelor’s degree.
They found that graduates who had between seven and 10 significant relationships with faculty or staff during college were over three times more likely than the average graduate to rate their college experience as “very rewarding.” The poll also found that meaningful peer relationships have a similar effect.
In fact, the researchers write that students should have a constellation of mentors that include “a diverse set of faculty, staff, and peers who will get students out of their comfort zones and challenge them to learn more—and more deeply—than they thought they could.” While a number of grads reported that professors served as their most influential mentors, a third of respondents identified their most influential mentor as a staff member, administrator, or student life worker.
But students don’t need to meet every faculty member or peer to improve their college experience, the researchers suggest. Grads with just one or two faculty, staff, or peer relationships were still about twice as likely as grads with zero meaningful relationships to rate college as “very rewarding.”
The researchers note that many of the students who lack these relationships are first-generation students. According to the poll, 15% of first-gen grads reported having zero influential relationships with faculty or staff during college.
That’s why Elon implemented the Odyssey Scholars program, which connects first-generation students with faculty and peer mentors at the start of college. Connecting students with mentors at the start of college is particularly important. The researchers found that nearly 80% of graduates met their most influential peers and 60% met their most influential faculty mentors during their first year of college.
The university reports that students who participated in Odyssey Scholars experienced a higher four-year graduation rate than students who were not involved with the program. And students involved in a similar program at the University of Texas at Austin, the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan (TIP), were more likely than their non-TIP peers to have a GPA above a 3.0 (Felten et al., The Conversation, 8/22/18).