Mentors, Coaching & Facebook: New Frontiers in Helping First-Gens Succeed

Jennifer Wheary
October 21, 2013

Two recent reports add to the evidence and provide additional ideas about the ways in which coaching and innovative mentoring can be effective tools to support first-generation college students. 

Students with college-educated parents often have a distinct advantage over first-generation students in that they can draw on the experience of their parents, other family members and family friends when it comes to completing the tasks they need or when they hit a rough patch or need advice.

A recent news article as well as a new academic study both talk about innovative ways to close this gap.

Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report writes about volunteer mentoring and paid professional coaches. Among the efforts that Marcus discusses is tnAchieves, a privately funded program operating in more than 25 Tennessee counties. The program currently has 2,785 volunteers who commit to working with students through their last semester of high school through their first semester of college. Many keep up the relationship beyond that time. tnAchieves is boasting some impressive successes, including, as Marcus reports:

  • 75 percent of students coached by tnAchieves stay in school from their first year to their second, compared with the state average of 59 percent.
  • 26 percent earn associate’s degrees within 3 years, more than double the 11 percent average three-year community college graduation rate for other Tennessee students.

Marcus also discusses other inspiring results, including research conducted by Stanford University that found that:

“Students who were coached by phone, email, and text messages were 15 percent more likely to stay in school…Thirty-one percent earned some sort of degree within four years, a graduation rate four percentage points higher than that of their classmates who were not coached.”

Marcus also discussed programs involving paid coaches at Wallace State Community College in Alabama and the University of Toledo in Ohio. He reports that at Wallace State, the retention rate among coached students grew to 87 percent, about 8 percentage points higher than for students who were not coached.

In a new research study, Paige Ware and Jose Ramos of Southern Methodist University talk about the possibilities of mentoring first-generation Latino college students through social media.

The authors participated in a weeklong college readiness program for students.  After this program was over, the researchers decided to keep in touch with the group via Facebook and other social media. The research study emerged from those social media interactions.

Ware and Ramos engaged in directed “e-mentoring” around specific college tasks as well as offering advice and emotional support when needed.  They used Facebook, for example, to provide weekly posts on topics such as the college application process, SAT/ACT exams, 
career and employment matters and regular status updates through students’ senior year of high school.

The researchers found that the primary value of social media was information distribution rather than providing social or emotional support. Social media was an effective tool to make students aware of important information and to help them achieve very functional tasks such as submitting required forms on time, meeting administrative deadlines, and understanding the process of applying for college. These findings echo those of a study published this summer by Nicole Ellison of the University of Michigan and many of the results of the work of Ben Castleman.

Ware and Ramos found that the effectiveness of social media as an information distribution channel was dependent upon students’ already having an existing network of high school counselors, mentors, peers, and family to turn to for this information.  For students who did not have such a strong network, a virtual one constructed through social media did provide some emotional support however.


Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a national policy organization. She is a first generation college graduate with a B.S. from Cornell University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This blog is part of the joint Demos and SparkAction project, First to Finish College.


Image: Flickr/west.m

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