Luis Perez-Medina worked hard to become the first person in his family to go to college.
For most of his childhood his parents, both Mexican immigrants, jumped from one job to another: server, cab driver, janitor. To break the cycle, Mr. Perez-Medina took classes at the local library, signed on with college access groups, and applied for scholarships. And in the fall of 2013, he started at Arizona State University.
But Perez-Medina soon realized he had no idea how to navigate college life or make the most of his opportunity. His parents, though supportive, could not offer experienced advice.
“When I first got to college, I didn’t know what to expect,” says Perez-Medina, now a senior working toward a degree in supply chain management. “I knew there were resources out there, but I didn’t know how to succeed.”
Perez-Medina’s story, as echoed by first-generation and low-income college students across the United States, is part of the impetus for a shifting conversation around how to close the gap in education, opportunity, and income between America’s rich and poor.
For decades, efforts to make college more accessible to underprivileged youth meant more low-income students enrolling in college.
But enrollment is just the first step, research shows. Completing college is key to leveling the playing field in an economy where three-quarters of the fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education or training. Dropping out of college could also leave students saddled with debt, but without the advantage of a degree that could help them get higher-paying jobs, researchers say.
As of 2013, however, only 9 percent of adults from the nation’s lowest income quartile earned a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with 77 percent of their counterparts in the top income bracket, according to a joint report by The Pell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. And while finances are a major reason that students drop out, poor preparation, the pressures of work and family life, and a lack of self-confidence are top contributors, too.
In response, policymakers, researchers, and nonprofits are looking at ways to provide students support throughout the college years via mentoring and networking opportunities.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that once students get to college, they’re OK, they no longer need the support,” says Kimberly Harris, co-founder and chief executive officer of America Needs You, a New York City-based career development and mentoring nonprofit that serves underprivileged students.
“But they need support at all points of the continuum,” she says. “We’re getting students into college but not graduating them.”
'I felt I would get ridiculed'
When Perez-Medina finished high school, he linked up with College Success Arizona (CSA). The organization, based in Phoenix, Ariz., not only helped with his tuition, he says, it also supplied him with a mentor who eased him through the insecurities of freshman year.
Like the first time he started a conversation with a student whose family went to college.
“I was kind of intimidated by that,” Perez-Medina says. “I felt I would get ridiculed for not knowing things.”
Such doubts are common among first-generation students, researchers say. They tend to shy from asking questions or reaching out, afraid they’ll be considered stupid. Many feel they have to prioritize work to help their families with the bills, squeezing in classes between full-time jobs.
And unlike their peers who come from families with a college-going tradition, these students tend to take minor incidents – a failed test, a missed final, an unpaid bill – as fate putting them in their place, says Myrna Cardenas, a CSA mentor and the first in her family to go to college.
“Every time something happens, they take it as a sign of them not belonging and that they shouldn't be there,” she says.
Having mentors to assure them otherwise can be crucial to a positive college experience – and help keep those students in school, researchers and others say. A 2015 Gallup poll found that students were almost twice as likely to strongly agree that their education was worth the cost if they had supportive relationships with professors and mentors throughout college. Students with those supports reported being more engaged and thriving in the university setting.
Perez-Medina would agree. Having a mentor, he says, “reminds me that someone’s there and expecting me to succeed.”
“I may have probably gotten through college without an adviser,” he adds. “But I wouldn’t have been so involved, I wouldn’t have had these opportunities. I probably would not have as high a GPA. It’s helped me overcome this whole ‘I was at a disadvantage’ thing.”
A circle of mentors
Research shows that when done right, formal mentoring programs can lead to improved student retention and better grades.
CSA boasts a 70 percent graduation rate among its first-generation students, and a 72 percent overall retention rate.
The Oakland Promise, an education initiative led by Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf, pairs the city’s low-income, first-generation students with personal mentors who can guide them throughout their undergraduate career. Launched in January, the program has $25 million dollars in expected contributions from a range of nonprofits over its first four years. One of the city's partner organizations, the East Bay College Fund, has a graduation rate of 80 percent among its students.
"So it’s not just the financial resources that young people need," says Mayor Schaaf, who has mentored young people herself. (To hear more about the young man who she says changed her life, listen to her audio clip below.) "It is that socio-emotional support, and the magic of a mentor – a caring adult who is in your corner, who is not being paid to be there, but truly loves and believes in you."
But some say that matching underprivileged students with mentors is only part of the solution. Teaching them to develop those relationships is just as important in closing the gap between them and their more well-connected peers, says Sarah Schwartz, an assistant professor of psychology at Suffolk University in Boston.
Her pilot program, Connected Scholars, involves a 10-week course that encourages youth to recruit mentors in and out of their social and academic circles. The students who took part in the workshop reported stronger, closer relationships with their instructors on campus than those who didn’t, initial evaluations showed.
“We’re seeing more research … [on] the importance of having a circle of mentors who can support different needs at different times in life,” Dr. Schwartz says.
Even some groups who have spent years focusing on formal, one-on-one mentoring have begun to see the benefits of the “teaching to fish” model.
“A lot of it is around agency. How do you advocate for yourself?” says Khari Brown, executive director of Capital Partners for Education, a nonprofit that provides a continuum of mentoring support and career and academic services to low-income students in the Washington, D.C., area.
“Our students don’t have personal networks, they can’t call an uncle or friend’s dad to help them get a job,” he adds. “My peer group will rely on our network to help our kids succeed. And that’s something [these students] are missing.”
Vashti Barran says the mentor she was assigned via America Needs You (ANY) in New York was a key part of her success in college. The most important thing she took home from the two years she spent with the program, however, was self-confidence. Through ANY, she says, she learned to reach out to other people and develop relationships with them.
Raised in Queens by a single mother, Ms. Barran – like Perez-Medina in Phoenix – started college with little support. ANY exposed her to other students like herself and a network of mentors from a variety of professions whom she was encouraged to approach, ask questions, and learn from.
By the time she graduated, Barran not only had her mentor to turn to for career advice. She had also cultivated a relationship with another volunteer who helped her nab a job at the nonprofit where she now works as a business relations manager.
“I think I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that in the way that I did if I didn’t go through the program,” Barran says. “Before that I felt I didn’t have vocabulary to do so. I wasn’t confident enough. I think it absolutely taught me that.”