All Articles Education Analysis College is risky -- mentors can make it a safer bet

College is risky — mentors can make it a safer bet

More than 10,000 first-generation college students with mentors have persisted at twice the rate of students facing similar barriers, Julia Freeland Fisher and Scott Pulsipher write.

5 min read


The young adult female guidance counselor listens carefully to the young adult female student for article on college mentors.

(SDI Productions/Getty Images)

When she enrolled in college, Jessica Sherhag wasn’t just working full-time in a hospital in Milwaukee. She also had part-time jobs as an EMT and supporting the Children’s Hospital Transport Team across Wisconsin.  

SmartBrief Education Insights blurb“Life was crazy already, and I was planning to add to it,” she recalls of her decision to pursue her bachelor’s degree.  

 That was 2018. Since then, Sherhag has taken on even more. In 2019, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then the pandemic hit, exposing health care workers like her to unprecedented levels of stress and risk. 

Despite what decades of education data tells us are poor odds, Sherhag remained in school. She credits her program mentor, Samantha Eaves, for helping her stay the course. “Samantha really took the time to get to know me. By the end of our first call, I could already feel the pressure lifting off my chest,” Sherhag says.  

College students are more than just students — they are people navigating life’s twists and turns. While higher education institutions are quick to market the benefits of going to college, too few follow through with structures that support staying in college. A staggering 38% of students drop out, citing the stress of balancing school and work as a leading cause.  

Statistics like this make clear that while traditional education systems are designed to be linear, life is anything but. Amid soaring tuition costs, uneven supports and overwhelming student debt, college can be a risky bet. 

Mentors make college a better bet 

Having a dedicated person in their corner can be the difference-maker between a postsecondary experience that punishes students for the hurdles they encounter and one that helps them thrive in spite of them. In a world of unknowns, access to a college mentor strongly predicts whether students complete college and feel prepared for life after graduation. That’s why some colleges are doubling down on support networks. At Western Governors University, for example, where Sherhag is enrolled, each student is paired with a college mentor to help them plan, navigate and problem-solve along their academic journey.  

For Sherhag, Eaves provided many forms of support tailored to her specific needs. “I wasn’t just a student ID to Samantha. I was someone that mattered,” she says.  

It’s telling that when Sherhag was diagnosed with cancer, Eaves was one of the first people she told. “I knew I was strong and that I would get through all the new battles that lay ahead. However, I knew that Samantha would be there with me through this, too,” she says.  

De-risking college … at scale 

Unfortunately, in today’s higher education landscape, college mentors are out of reach for too many students. Fewer than half of all recent graduates say they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals. 

That’s because mentorship can prove expensive, inefficient and impersonal. “The average university might have 15 to 20 pockets of formal mentoring but no standardized infrastructure to ensure student outcomes and justify the allocation of a limited budget,” says Jackson Boyar, founder of an organization called Mentor Collective, which partners with colleges to streamline and support mentoring.  

What the higher education system needs is not more fragmented, small-scale mentoring programs for a select few, but rather a comprehensive mentoring model that provides every student with the support, counsel and encouragement they need to reach graduation. 

To achieve that affordably, technology can help. In fact, Eaves and Sherhag didn’t meet face-to-face until last year, when Sherhag crossed the stage at graduation. Their trust was built over months of phone calls, video chats and emails. 

That has huge implications at a national scale. Colleges can expand mentorship and coaching through what Alexandra Bernadotte, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Beyond 12, calls “high-tech, high-touch” support. Beyond 12’s virtual coaches have worked with over 10,000 first-generation college students across the country and have seen them persist at twice the rate of students facing similar barriers. Instead of replacing the human touch, technology makes their reach and results possible. “We didn’t create an app because we could; we created an app because we simply couldn’t afford not to,” Bernadotte says. 

The ripple effects of strong mentors 

Students who don’t complete college are significantly more likely to default on student loans, and 20% more likely to be unemployed than degree holders. Understandably, many of today’s debates about college value focus on financial capital and the downside risks of the college gamble. But what’s not often discussed? Investing in students’ social capital — supportive relationships and the many resources they offer — can help more students like Sherhag enjoy the upside benefits of earning a degree.  

Those upsides compound over time. Relationships have ripple effects across students’ lives and networks. “When I had a friend sign up for the bachelor program, she was able to request Samantha as her mentor too,” Sherhag said. As Sherhag pursues an MBA in health management, she’ll do the same. “Life would be boring without my cheerleader, so on to the next chapter titled Masters Time. Samantha is my mentor again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” 

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 



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