Mentoring Requirements Set Out to Improve Free College Outcomes

New America

Mentoring is often billed as a valuable tool for getting students, especially low-income and first-generation students, over the hurdles college presents—applying for financial aid, registering for classes, and successfully completing that first year. It isn’t surprising, then, that mentoring requirements keep popping up in existing and proposed state-level free college programs. These programs are designed to expand access to students who might not have otherwise enrolled, so it’s possible that the support of a mentor could be the difference between getting a degree and dropping out.

So far, two statewide free college programs have used very different mentoring models with very different costs. While we’re still waiting to see if these mentoring requirements actually improve enrollment and persistence for students, state policymakers should pay attention to the outcomes as they come into focus. It could be that helping students navigate the logistical challenges of higher education is just as important as reducing the cost.

For TN Promise, Tennessee partners with 3 organizations to provide mentoring to its students, the largest of which is tnAchieves*, serving students in 85 of 95 counties in the state. Relying exclusively on volunteers, tnAchieves’ mentors commit to working with 5 to 10 students a year, meeting in person once in the spring and again in the fall of a student’s first year of college** and reaching out to mentees every two weeks, most commonly via text.

Graham Thomas, Deputy Director of Engagement and Partnerships at tnAchieves says mentors fill three roles: a taskmaster, a trusted college resources, and a source of encouragement. “There’s this mindset in TN where a lot of parents think ‘I’m doing just fine, so you don’t need to go to college.’ …Mentors provide some encouragement they might not get at home.” Mentors participate in a one hour training, receive a mentoring handbook, are offered optional webinars, and receive weekly emails. While there is no requirement for a mentor to have attained a post-secondary education, 94% have a post-secondary credential and 54% have an advanced degree—this in a state where only 39% of the population has any sort of degree. Retention is strong, with about 50% of mentors returning annually.

But this model has some challenges. Recruiting volunteers is a grassroots affair, and it is not easy in every part of the state. “In the suburbs of Nashville it isn’t really challenging to find someone to invest some time. Rural Tennessee is a lot more difficult,” says Thomas. Quality and consistency in messaging provided by mentors is also a concern. The success of these mentoring relationship is largely dependent on the capacity and knowledge of whoever volunteers. Also, accountability for both mentors and mentees is limited. Mentors are not required to track their interactions with students***, and outside of the two mandatory in-person meetings, students are not required to participate in any other interactions.

Minnesota chose a different approach. Minnesota’s ongoing 2-year Occupational Grant Pilot contracted mentoring out to InsideTrack, part of the Strada Education Network (formerly USA Funds). InsideTrack provides an evidence based model of mentoring implemented by their “coaches” who have the freedom to tailor the methodology to an individual student’s needs. Coaches come from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. All are college graduates and 40-50% have an advanced degree. To comply with the grant, students need to participate in 4 “meetings” over the course of each academic year, interactions where the student creates a meaningful plan or step forward, again at the discretion of coaches. Students receive weekly—and tracked—contact from coaches as well, with students being the most responsive to texts although coaches can call, email, or use InsideTrack’s uCoach app. While there might be concerns that a lack of in-person contact could limit the impact of mentoring, Megan FitzGibbon, State Financial Aid Manager at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, says that InsideTrack provided enough evidence with their model that in-person interactions between students and coaches would not be necessary. “Recent high school grads are online. Even the students who might not have regular internet access to check email are texting.” InsideTrack says they find students are more honest and open with remote interactions and students appreciate the increased flexibility provided by remote mentoring.

But this model also has challenges. Students in the pilot cohort only began receiving mentoring services upon the awarding of the grant (mostly in August or September of their first year) so the design did little to address summer melt—when students intend to enroll in college but lose steam in the summer and fail to show up in the fall. Using highly trained coaches offers accountability and consistency in messaging but greatly expands the number of students per mentor—InsideTrack coaches had about 175 students each for the first year of the pilot. And as in Tennessee, the amount of interaction is largely dependent on the student, with some only meeting the bare minimum while others seek out much more contact.

The biggest challenge for Minnesota’s pilot is the cost. With fixed up front costs and based on a target of 2000 students, Minnesota projected the mentoring program would cost $387.50 per student, but far fewer students ultimately received awards in the first year driving the cost up to $952.09 per student. Compare that to the volunteer driven and completely privately funded mentoring program that serves the vast majority of Tennessee students. As estimated by tnAchieves, mentoring costs just $10 per student.****

Providing social supports in addition to reducing financial burdens for students seems like a common sense move, but there’s no guarantee mentoring requirements will meaningfully improve student outcomes. Challenges in the greater design of free college programs could also limit mentoring’s effects. The movement toward free college is still very young, and while it will take time to parse out exactly how much impact mentoring has on Tennessee and Minnesota students, policymakers in other states will want to watch closely to see what kinds of returns these programs provide.

* tnAchieves began as Knox Achieves, the organization whose model TN Promise was built on.
** The 2016-17 academic year was the first year where the second meeting took place in the fall instead of earlier in the year.
*** A portal is being considered for tracking interactions.
**** This includes all students regardless of their receipt of a TN Promise grant or their enrollment in a post-secondary institution. The cost for the entire tnAchieves program is $27 per student.

This article originally appeared in New America on June 26, 2017

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