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The value and power of proactive mentoring

A 2016 study found that active engagement from academic advisers improved college persistence and graduation rates by nearly 15 percent.

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Anthony Williams, a first-generation college student, faced overwhelming challenges in his first semester. Enrolling in an excessive number of courses, he contemplated quitting. Unfortunately, this is a common experience among students who lack the knowledge and skills necessary for success. Despite increased college attendance rates in recent years, completion rates remain low, particularly for underrepresented and low-income students who often lack social support networks.

Anthony found guidance from his family and church family in Houston. Encouraged by a mentor, he sought advice from school advisers to navigate college successfully. “With their advice, I was able to reignite the flame. It took willpower to get through school.”

Nationwide, college advising and mentoring have proven effective in enhancing college persistence and completion. Many students start their college journey unaware of the hurdles they will face, including time management, mental health issues, self-confidence and social interactions.

To address these challenges, universities have implemented proactive mentoring and advising programs over the past two decades. Instead of waiting for students to seek help, colleges now reach out through various means to offer assistance before challenges become overwhelming.

Anthony attributes his graduation from Ensign College in April 2023 to the support of his mentors, who acted as guides and cheerleaders: “Without my advisers, I would have been lost. At the beginning it was overwhelming. I would have dropped out.” 

Advising takes various forms. For example, Inside Track, a college “coaching” company, successfully implemented proactive Advising takes various forms. For example, Inside Track, a college “coaching” company, successfully implemented proactive mentorship programs. A 2016 study found that active engagement from coaches improved college persistence and graduation rates by nearly 15 percent. Their approach involved listening to students’ concerns, helping them identify and address barriers to success, and connecting them with tailored resources.

While AI and predictive modeling help identify at-risk students, the personal connection formed through mentorship, advising or coaching is crucial in helping students overcome challenges. Comprehensive and proactive advising approaches have gained recognition in higher education. The United States Department of Education’s College Completion Network found that these strategies consistently led to improved college persistence and completion. These programs prioritize building relationships, guiding students toward support systems, assisting them in navigating challenges and linking college experiences to post-college opportunities.

Scaling these programs within institutions presents a challenge as successful initiatives remain limited to individual institutions, hindering widespread implementation.

Mentoring holds value in religious higher education due to its alignment with the principles of advising, ministering and care that transcend religious organizations. For instance, in Judaism, mentoring reflects the concept of tikkun olam (םָלֹוע ןּוּקיִּת) or “repairing the world,” by positively impacting lives and guiding individuals through challenges. Similarly, in Christianity, ministering involves providing support and care, particularly in difficult times.

Religious organizations often prioritize community support, and mentoring programs contribute to fostering connection, unity and mutual support among students. Examples such as Harvard’s Faith and Veritas program, connecting students with alumni who share religious values, or Brigham Young University’s emphasis on assigning “ministers” to students through student congregations, demonstrate the integration of mentoring in religious institutions.

Jewish tradition places a high value on education and passing down knowledge, which mentoring facilitates as experienced individuals share their wisdom and life lessons with younger counterparts. Mentoring also aims to bolster students’ confidence in their student identity. Catholic University utilizes campuswide devotionals, while BYU’s student congregations strengthen both community and identity.

Effective advising can occur in both religiously-based and non-sectarian institutions, with no evidence suggesting one is inherently more effective than the other. However, the principles employed by religious institutions often align with successful advising programs. In fact, coaches and advisers from secular and religious-based organizations often approach advisement with a passionate and dedicated mindset, akin to a “religious zeal.”

Anthony’s advice for other students who are struggling is to find those mentors: “Remember that there are people at the college and in your life who are ready to help you. They are rooting for you!” Religious and nonsectarian colleges and universities can play a key role in connecting students like Anthony to vital mentors who can advise and support students on their path to college completion. 

Eric Bettinger is a professor at the Stanford University of Education. Ilana M. Horwitz is an assistant professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the Tulane University.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.