Under any definition of student success—from retention metrics to life-long fulfillment—research has demonstrated a strong link between faculty activity and student outcomes.
High school seniors who have a network of supportive adults are more likely to earn better grades, report higher aspirations, and participate more frequently in college-preparatory activities, according to research from Search Institute. And students who have had seven or more meaningful mentor relationships during college are over three times more likely than the average graduate to say college was a rewarding experience, finds a poll from Elon University.
Few students have mentors
But while research has shown that close faculty-student relationships result in significantly greater levels of happiness and engagement, few college graduates report having those relationships, notes Colin Koproske, a managing director at EAB.
In fact, only about a quarter of students surveyed by Gallup said their professors care about them as individuals (27%) and that they have a mentor who encourages them to reach their goals (25%).
Minority and first-generation students are even less likely to report having faculty mentors. According to the Elon poll, 15% of first-gen grads reported having zero influential relationships with faculty or staff during college. And a separate Strada-Gallup poll demonstrates that while 72% of white students with mentors said their mentor is a professor, 61% of first-gen students and just 47% of minority students could say the same.
This is a problem, as faculty mentors play a critical role in encouraging underrepresented students and identifying students who could use more support, according to EAB research. “Faculty have tremendous potential for helping elevate student success rates, writes EAB’s Ed Venit for the Student Success Insights blog. “As instructors, faculty members have more face-to-face contact with students than almost anyone else on campus. This puts them in an ideal position to sense student troubles earlier than anyone else.”
Make mentoring more valuable
To encourage faculty to mentor students (and make student mentoring more valuable), Laura Behling, W. Brad Johnson, Paul Miller, and Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler—four college faculty who work together to lead the Seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research at Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning—share a few recommendations:
1: Define mentorship. Not every student-faculty project counts as mentorship, write the seminar leaders. They recommend outlining what good mentoring means for your institution and the expectations for mentors.
2: Train mentors. Occasional workshops won’t make a substantial difference, the seminar leaders write. Instead, they suggest using a structured system to select and train mentors, including a faculty-faculty mentorship program, training on the variety of student developmental needs, and regular assessments of mentor effectiveness.
3: Support mentors. Faculty mentors can’t succeed if they don’t understand the goal or value of mentoring at your institution. The seminar leaders recommend providing faculty mentors with clear direction and adequate funding for both undergraduate research and ongoing mentor training.
4: Show the value of mentorships. As noted above, faculty members need to see that campus leaders are making mentorship a priority. The seminar leaders recommend backing up mentorship programs with the resources and infrastructure they need to be successful. For example, they suggest creating a variety of different ways for faculty to get involved with mentoring.
5: Require excellence. Campus leaders must understand that every faculty member isn’t going to make a good mentor, the seminar leaders write. The seminar leaders recommend helping faculty who are interested in becoming mentors balance their personal commitments with mentoring—or simply accept that they don’t have the bandwidth to provide quality mentorship.
6: Reward excellence. Mentorship is such a “vital learning opportunity” for undergraduates, the seminar leaders argue, that academic leaders should formalize it in the criteria for tenure and promotion. The authors also encourage campus leaders to consider other tangible ways to reward their most effective mentors.
7: Provide feedback. Another way to show faculty mentors that you value high-quality mentoring is to provide them with feedback on their effectiveness and give them opportunities to continue growing as mentors, according to the seminar leaders.
Sources: Behling, Miller et al., Inside Higher Ed, 10/27/17; Crabtree, Gallup, 1/22/19; Felten et al., The Conversation, 8/22/18; Freeland Fisher, EdSurge, 9/28/18; Strada-Gallup survey, accessed 11/1/18; Venit, EAB, 3/10/17
Read more about mentors' role in student success
A research team surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 4,000 U.S. college graduates to learn what satisfied alumni have in common.
Students can't succeed with grit alone. They need strong relationships, too, argues an assistant education professor.
Mentors can help students 'define and express [their] inner calling,' says one leadership expert. 'But rarely can one person give you everything you need to grow.'
To find career success and experience long-term well-being, students need a network of adults that supports their development, academic success, and access to opportunity.