Supporting First-Generation Students: The Power of Peers

Attending college as a first-generation or low-income student can be a difficult path. Though neither of my parents graduated from high school, they encouraged their five children to go to college. Thankfully, by the time it was my turn, I had four older siblings who had kept their promise to my parents — four mentors who could help me navigate my own college journey. With their guidance and support, I graduated, even eventually earning a Master’s degree at Harvard University. Not all students are so fortunate. 

More low-income students than ever are now attending college, but still too few of them are graduating. While the graduation rates for middle- and upper-class students have increased over time, the graduation rates for lower income students have remained flat, increasing just half a percentage point over a decade. Less than half of Pell Grant-eligible students nationwide ever earn a degree or certificate, and only 12 percent of low-income Americans have earned a college degree, compared to 58 percent of high-income Americans.

Colleges and universities must do more to support their low-income students and help them graduate — and they must do so with increasingly tighter budgets and dwindling resources. The answer may come in the form of near-peer mentoring. 

We have long known the importance of mentoring. Research from a Strada-Gallup poll found that “a mentor who encourages a student’s goals and dreams” is the single most important factor in whether a college graduate finds success in work and in life. Mentoring has a particularly profound impact on low-income and first-generation students, and on their ability to graduate and earn a degree. Unfortunately, few students report having a mentor. Near-peer mentoring can change that. 

Near-peer mentors are passionate and dedicated recent college graduates who provide advice and coaching to students who might otherwise go without the resources or background they need to navigate the complex world of college. Research suggests that low-income families trust relationships more than systems, making near-peer mentoring especially effective among low-income students. Indeed, the near-peer mentoring relationship is built on a unique kind of trust between students and their mentors. Like my siblings, these mentors are close in age to the students they work with, and they often come from similar economic backgrounds, allowing deep developmental relationships to take root. Relationships are key. 

Studies show that students who work with near-peer mentors are more likely to “value and persist through academic difficulty.” Low-income students who participate in College Possible’s near-peer coaching programs, for example, are four times more likely to earn a degree than their peers.

Importantly, near-peer mentors and coaches do not take the place of faculty, academic advisors, or financial aid counselors. They are not meant to replace or duplicate existing services on campus. Instead, they extend the reach of those services, supplementing existing campus relationships and roles. Their job is to help students find the answers to their questions — to point them in the right direction while providing encouragement and advice. As recent graduates who know and remember the world of college well, near-peer mentors and coaches can play a key role in helping students learn where they can turn for the help they need to succeed. 

Near-peer mentoring is typically low-cost, as the recent graduates who offer their time and knowledge do so not out of a desire for financial gain, but out of a desire to serve their community. For College Possible’s Catalyze program, which focuses on persistence and student success directly on college campuses, we enlist, train, and deploy AmeriCorps members to serve as our near-peer coaches at little cost. Institutions might be surprised by how many of their former students are willing to serve as near-peer mentors at a relatively low cost to the institution. These coaches know how difficult navigating college life can be — especially for low-income and first-generation students — and they know the importance and value of having the right kind of support. 

As institutions work to improve the outcomes of all their students, they would do well to remember the impact a good mentor can have. And they would be wise to leverage one of their greatest, but often overlooked, resources: their recent graduates.