The Search for Meaning; How Colleges Are Failing at Mentoring

Posted by Jason Arnold on February 12, 2016

Colleges are failing at mentoring

In a recent post, I outlined some of the reasons why we need to rethink college education. The system is struggling under widely disparate expectations, climbing tuition rates, and an increasingly disillusioned group of adjunct faculty. At the same time, we are facing a skills gap in which the average age of farmers in America is over 55 years old. One of the first steps I'd like to take is to separate the competing ideals of career development and what former Harvard president Derek Bok calls democratic citizenship.

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There is an incredibly wide diversity of colleges and experiences that exist to educate students in one or both of these ideals. Andrew Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia University, describes this diversity like this:

The category itself - college - is facing so much variation today that when we get down to particulars we are talking about not only small colleges serving mainly local students, but about colleges within big universities that draw students from every state and many countries; arts colleges; business colleges; religiously affiliated colleges; counter cultural, sports oriented, for profit, and community colleges; and most recently, password protected online colleges with virtual classrooms that exist only in cyber-space.

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While these students and their respective experiences are difficult to generalize, I wanted to focus on one aspect of college that may be worth revisiting: the concept of mentoring.

Why mentoring?

Brandon Busteed is the director of educational research at Gallup. Armed with data from a wide swath of college graduates, he reports that one of the most significant factors in a young adult’s development is emotional support. Young people are struggling with more than simple knowledge acquisition; they are learning character.

When a mentor takes an interest in their growth and development, the outcomes are significantly more positive.

We learned that if graduates felt "supported" during college -- by professors who cared, made them excited about learning and who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams -- their odds of being engaged in work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in their well-being. This finding was true of graduates of all ages and years of graduation; in other words, it's a career- and life-trajectory game changer.

Is mentoring happening on college campuses?

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In short: no. Busteed draws his conclusions from the Gallup-Purdue index, drawing on surveys from over 30,000 college graduates to find out how they were experiencing life after college. The index includes quantitative data such as income, but also goes deeper into qualitative measures like work engagement and job satisfaction. He reports:

We found that about six in 10 college graduates strongly agree they had a professor who made them excited about learning (63%). Fewer than three in 10 strongly agree the professors at their alma mater cared about them as a person (27%). And only about two in 10 strongly agree they had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams (22%) -- which means that about eight in 10 college graduates lacked a mentor in college.

A great example of mentorship in college came up when I spoke with a friend about his experience at a small private college. He spoke about dinner parties hosted at the professor's home, in which students were invited to take part in dialogue and debate about important questions. One professor in particular took an interest in him, and encouraged him to pursue a study abroad opportunity. My friend had regular access to his professors, who were able to provide valuable advice on questions that were both personal and professional.

This engagement inspired him to take over the family business after graduation. 

Most colleges fail at this kind of mentoring

The example I provided here took place at Wabash College, a private liberal arts college in Indiana. There are several reasons why this kind of strong, personalized mentoring will be out of reach for most students.  

The first major issue is simply a numbers problem. Many professors are dealing with a huge class load, they are underpaid, and are simply unable to invest significant time and energy into the growth and development of their students. A private liberal arts college can accomplish this goal because it is highly selective, and lower enrollments require higher tuition (upwards of $30,000 annually at Wabash). For most state universities with higher enrollment rates, adding a significant mentoring component to the curriculum may be difficult or impossible. There just isn’t enough time in the day for a college instructor to engage deeply with each student. 

Big problems require big solutions

A mentor is not just someone who helps you get an A in your course.The Mentoring Project reports that "In the United States alone, there are some 25 million youth growing up fatherless. This is a personal tragedy and a collective epidemic.  Countless statistics tell us that children from fatherless homes are more likely to: drop out of school, become teenage parents, join gangs and experiment with drugs. The fatherless story is not ending well". Colleges are Failing to Mentor Our Students

While this may sound a little bit alarmist, it does reveal how critical it is for young adults to find guidance and support in life. This is much more than having an academic advisor, or getting an A in Biology. A good mentor can help a student find their place in the community. They can walk with the student through a crisis, or help them deal with difficult relationships. They can talk through deeper questions both personal and professional. They will open up their personal network and pull strings. They will have the student over for dinner. This is the kind of social mobility that used to take place on a college campus, but it is increasingly naive to think that students are receiving this kind of attention.

If colleges are unable to fill this role, we have to ask who will? We have a giant, gaping hole in the way that our children make their way into adulthood. 

Conclusion

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If this is the case, then the result is a college experience that for many students is reduced to the simple delivery of content. We will soon find cheaper and more efficient ways to deliver the information.

For example, the Wharton School of Business offers a specialization in business foundations, fully online, for $595 with a certificate of completion. This is one of the most prestigious business schools in the world.  

For new and aspiring farmers, Upstart University courses in controlled environment agriculture ($9.99 a month) could have you up and running your business next spring.

If information was all you needed, you could be on your way. But the skills needed to run a business or build a career go far beyond simple content delivery. Students need the support structures and guidance from experienced mentors and a community of peers. In future articles, we will take a look at how different communities are beginning to invest in the growth and development of their most valuable resource; their kids.

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