Become a mentor: Efforts of volunteers help low-income students stay in college

Increased economic opportunity resulting in less poverty is within reach thanks to a statewide mentoring program helping low-income students stay in college.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education is providing mentors to 21st Century Scholars, low-income students who receive state funding for postsecondary education. Despite this significant financial assistance, only 33 percent of scholars earn an associate’s degree within three years or a bachelor’s degree within six years. The state average for all full-time students is 42 percent.

“Money is really important, but students need more than the financial means to be successful,” said Brody Broshear, assistant vice president for academic success at the University of Southern Indiana. “The relationship piece is tremendously critical.”

Broshear said this especially is true for low-income students who are the first in their families to go to college. These students often do not have family members or friends who can answer questions or help them endure the inherent stress of college life.

This leads to a growing gap in academic attainment and greater income inequality between higher-income and lower-income students.

According to Brookings Institute,

“Socioeconomic gaps emerge early on in the college pipeline. Rich kids are nearly three times more likely than poor kids to pursue postsecondary education. Rich-poor gaps in college persistence and graduation have grown over the past decades.”

The commission responded to these gaps by launching Indiana College Success Mentoring, which matches volunteer mentors with 21st Century Scholars. The program, now in the final year of a five-year pilot facilitated by the Indiana Youth Institute, is enjoying initial success.

For the high school class of 2012, 57 percent of mentored scholars currently are enrolled in postsecondary education. If these students graduate, their success rate will be two to four times greater than scholars who do not have a mentor and three to six times greater than low-income students overall.

David Jones, now a junior at Ball State, is one of those students. Jones is mentored by Courtney Crawley, a college graduate who works at a YMCA in Indianapolis. Jones said Crawley’s biggest influence is encouraging him to stay strong when college life is difficult.

“Courtney always uses the term, ‘put up or shut up,’” Jones explained. Last year when Jones was ill and fell behind at school, “Courtney gave me the ‘put up or shut up’ speech, and ever since then I’ve been picking it up. Now I’m looking forward to graduation.”

“That’s what he needed to hear at that time,” Crawley recalled. “He was second-guessing himself and was worried about his illness, but I knew he could be successful if he just pushed a little harder. I maybe sounded harsh, but I was being sincere in wanting him to strive and do well.”

Jones added that Ball State “was a culture shock to me” after he graduated from a charter high school with just 27 other students. “Ball State was huge to me,” Jones explained. “Having reassurance from a mentor like Courtney, who is a great resource to go to, helps me with my stress.”

Broshear said Jones’ experience as a low-income student who is the first in his family to attend college is typical.

According to Broshear, the first challenge “is really understanding collegiate culture from the language, to how to interact in the classroom, to how to speak with a faculty member, to what to do when we run into trouble academically. If you struggle on a test, it isn’t time to throw in the towel. It’s time to find the services and resources that are available to help you be successful the next time around.”

Crawley said mentors can serve as that resource. “The main thing is (students) want someone to talk to, someone to spend time with, someone who can teach them things about college they may not learn at home,” Crawley explained, adding that mentors are “people who can help students think about their future.”

January is National Mentoring Month. One adult mentoring one child for one hour at least once a week for one school year can have a profound impact on that student.

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