University Mentorship: Serving Today’s Students

More people are seeking higher education than ever before. The National Student Clearinghouse says an estimated 20 million students attended colleges and universities in the fall of 2016—about 5 million more than attended in the fall of 2000. But they also revealed that nearly half of college students don’t end up graduating. In fact, USNEWS found 1 in 3 college freshmen don’t even return for sophomore year.

Why is this? Student success within higher education is a complex topic with many factors and variables. There are no simple answers. But one known contributing factor is the evolution of the modern student. As student demographics evolve, so too do their needs.

University mentorship is a proven way to combat this problem and enable student success, but before we dive into that, let’s take a moment to better understand the modern student.

university mentorship session between female alumnus and male student

How Can University Mentorship Support the Today’s Student?

The modern student differs from the traditional idea of a student in a few key ways. Understanding these differences is an important step toward changing how connected students feel to their universities and consequently, whether or not they stay through to graduation.

The Millennial Mindset

For one, a majority of today’s students are millennials. To keep them engaged in their education, it’s important to understand their working and learning preferences. Millennials prefer collaboration to competition, so they’re happier working together with their peers than being pitted against each other. This generation also grew up with technology literally at their fingertips, which means they’ve grown accustomed to having access to instant answers. Schools would also be wise to take note of what keeps millennials engaged in the workplace: for the generation notorious for jumping ship often, research from Quantum Workplace shows that the number one driver of millennial retention and engagement is career growth and development opportunities.

Student Diversity

According to the Brookings Institute, millennials are generally more diverse than previous generations. But for students who are part of a minority group on campus, it can still be hard to feel like they belong. They may not see many people who look like them. Their academic endeavors may be contradicted by negative stereotypes, and unfortunately, research from Stanford University indicates that negative stereotypes of minority groups can have a negative effect on academic performance. Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor at University of Massachusetts, explained the significance of that sense of belonging in an interview with The Atlantic:

“Humans are social animals. Our ability alone doesn’t determine whether we stay in or leave a field. It’s ability mixed in that feeling that these are your people, this is where you belong. Absent, that even high-performers might not feel motivated to stay.”

Juggling Multiple Priorities

The traditional idea of a college student followed a linear path: high school, secondary education, workforce, settle down and start a family. That student, who takes a full course load and can focus on education as a sole priority, is now in the minority.

The modern student juggles many priorities at once—a family, a job to support that family or pay tuition, and other obligations that compete with their education for attention. NBC reported that a staggering 75-80 percent of students now fall into this category. Their path is less like climbing a ladder one rung at a time, and more like rock climbing: alternating between upward, lateral, and diagonal moves to reach their end goal. With so much on their plates, students may find it challenging to “do it all.” They may question their choices, become disengaged, and grow to feel like they don’t belong. As with student diversity, more peer support in this area could help to assuage these feelings.

These three factors combined make higher education a minefield littered with occasions for students to feel doubtful, isolated, or like they made the wrong choice in pursuing a degree. This doesn’t bode well for student retention and graduation rates.

female student mentee looking for a university mentorship program

Supporting the Modern Student with University Mentorship

Fortunately, that’s not where the story ends. Many schools have come to rely on university mentoring as a strategy to support students. For millennials, mentoring is appealing because it provides a personalized, self-driven development avenue. Unsurprisingly, 75 percent of them want a mentor and deem it crucial to success. For diverse populations or students who break the “traditional” mold, university mentorship delivers powerful peer support that helps students feel more at home. According to a study from Penn State University, “Students who are entering a new environment, who may be uncertain about how they will be accepted or perceived, need additional validation in the form of mentors who can connect with them in ways similar to their home setting.”

The impact of university mentoring is far reaching, producing successful high-level results for universities and alumni associations as well:

Student Persistence & Graduation Rates. The National Bureau of Economic Research found students with a mentor are 14 percent more likely to stay in college and 13 percent more likely to graduate. The average age of students in that study was 31, proving that mentoring impacts traditional students and modern students alike.

Many universities also have specific goals to preserve student diversity. Feelings of isolation may put diverse populations at higher risk of dropping out, but mentoring connects these students with peer support from others like them to help impart a sense of belonging, which acts as a powerful driver to keep them on their chosen paths. A study at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst revealed female engineering students who had mentors felt more accepted by their peers and more confident in their engineering skills, while those without mentors were more likely to consider changing majors. Penn State University conducted similar research with incoming first-year African American students at predominantly white institutions with encouraging results.

Job Placement. Mentoring helps students expand their networks and receive career and academic advice that sets them up for success when they enter the job market. The Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder saw a 40 percent increase in job placement for students from their career mentoring program.

Alumni Engagement. By leveraging alumni as mentors, schools can both develop students and engage alumni in a meaningful way. Providing a personalized development opportunity for students can pay dividends down the road. Sheila Curran, CEO of Curran Consulting Group, a higher education consulting firm, wrote, “… if students strongly agree that their college prepared them well, they are nine times more likely to be attached to their alma mater. Attachment to one’s college is one of the factors most likely to lead eventually to philanthropy…”

The benefits of university mentorship are plentiful. And yet, Inside Higher Ed reports that 80 percent of college students still don’t have a mentor. All it takes to get started is to determine the right goals, and pick the right type of program for your organization and your students.

Learn How to Start a High-Impact Mentoring Program. Download the Ebook Today!

What Kind of University Mentorship is Right for Your Institution?

University mentoring can take many forms, each with its own unique benefits. Here are the most popular types of university mentoring programs we’ve seen:

Career Mentoring. Match students with professionals in their field of interest. In this engaging learning environment, students get academic and career advice, learn about potential career paths, and build networking skills.

Peer Mentoring. Pair students with others like them who can help them find their place. Peer mentors can provide a deeper level of support and guidance that helps students feel more engaged. This style is popular for transfer students, international students, veterans, or students newly accepted into a program.

New Student Onboarding. Give freshman students an upperclassmen mentor to help them acclimate to their new surroundings. The student mentors gain leadership skills while introducing their mentees to student communities to join, and providing continued support past initial student orientation.

male and female coworkers in mentoring session working on employee wellbeing issues

Alumni Mentoring. Match students with alumni who can give support and advice specific to the student’s chosen career path. Students reap the benefits of a career mentoring program while the university engages alumni in a rewarding experience, which serves as a compelling reason for continued interaction or philanthropy to the university in the future.

Flash Mentoring. Give students access to mentoring at the time of need. Flash mentoring gives students the flexibility of one-time meetings to quickly learn the skills and industry knowledge they’ll need to be successful.


More students going to college is great, but we’d be remiss to ignore the evolution of the modern student’s needs in order to graduate. There are many lenses through which to view the modern student, but whether it’s generational, demographical, or simply a matter of how much they have on their plates, it’s clear that students are looking for ways to feel more connected and supported. If schools don’t intervene, it’s unrealistic to expect the 50 percent graduation rate to improve. University mentoring is an effective way for schools to provide a deeper level of support in a way that’s scalable and personal for the modern student.

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