Informal Mentors and Education: Complementary or Compensatory Resources?

22 June 2009

A report by Lance D. Erickson, Steve McDonald and Glen H. Elder, Jr. Sociology of Education 82: 344-67

This article gives findings from a study of the effect of informal mentoring on the educational attainment of adolescents and relates this to inequalities in socio-economic background and personal, interactional and environmental resources upon which young people can draw during their educational development.

The study was based on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and the Adolescent Health and Academic Achievement (AHAA) study, which is an extension of Add Health. Add Health is a nationally representative study of a total of 12,621 adolescents in Grades 7-12 from 80 high schools in the United States in 1994. The data included in-depth interviews with adolescents and their parents on such topics as child outcomes, family and peer relationships, and school and neighbourhood characteristics. Smaller racial/ethnic groups were oversampled. Over 12,000 student school attainment transcripts were also obtained and used to develop indicators of achievement against interview data.

‘Informal mentors’ here refers to nonparental adults in the lives of young people, typically several years older than their protégés, who “step outside the boundaries of their typical role to take a special interest in a young person, offering advice and support to help the young person find his or her way in the social environment”(p346). This may include relatives, older siblings and friends, teachers, coaches, clergy, employers, or co-workers.

The study finds:

  • Youths with a mentor are 53 percent more likely to advance to the next level of education than are youths who do not have a mentor. The effect of mentoring remains strong and statistically significant even after the effects of other resources (including social background and parent, peer, teacher, and personal resources) that are known to influence education are controlled.
  • Mentors vary by social role in their effect on youths’ educational outcomes. For instance, young people with teachers as mentors tend to have greater educational success. However, relative, friend, and community mentors also have positive and significant effects.
  • The authors go on to argue that contrary to usual expectations, mentoring relationships that develop naturally have the potential for contributing to, rather than reducing, social inequality. Youths with an advantaged background, already possessing a range of social and personal resources, are more likely than the disadvantaged to have an informal mentoring relationship. They are more likely to be able to take advantage of the advice, support and guidance offered by relatives in a mentoring role, and parental resources predict the likelihood of a young person having a mentor. Thus, informal mentoring serves primarily as a complementary resource for advantaged young people, building on prior research that shows that “middle- and upper-class students develop a broader network of support relationships than do lower and working-class students”.
  • However, the authors draw on compelling evidence on the compensatory role of teacher mentoring for educational attainment of disadvantaged youths, for whom the presence of mentors is related to substantial improvements in educational success, in terms of both educational performance in high school and overall educational attainment. The positive effect is proportionally greater than that among children with highly educated parents, who are very likely to go on to university, regardless of whether they have a teacher as mentor (75%) or not (67%). Youths with parents whose education is limited, on the other hand, have only a 35% probability of attending university, but if they have a teacher as a mentor, their chances increase to 65%.

Informal Mentors and Education: Complementary or Compensatory Resources? – full report

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