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Understanding Confidence Gaps in College Aspirations: Exploring Peer Mentorship to Empower Marginalized Students

Written by on June 6, 2023

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Georgia, approximately 85% of high school juniors express a desire to attend college. However, the study also highlights that one in six students believe that college is not a realistic option for them.

The study published in the journal Educational Policy found that students attending public high schools, students with lower grades and students from low-income families expressed a desire to pursue higher education however, they were less confident in their ability to attain a bachelor’s degree.

While the study provided limited insights into the specific impacts on racial groups, data obtained from the United States Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC) shed further light on the effects of poverty and low income among Blacks and Hispanics. According to the CPS ASEC report, in 2019, poverty rates for Blacks and Hispanics were recorded at 18.8% and 15.7%, respectively, compared to 7.3% for both Asians and Non-Hispanic whites. This comparison highlights the substantially higher percentages for Blacks and Hispanics in contrast to the 7.3% poverty rate for Asians and Non-Hispanic whites.

Furthermore, a report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) emphasized the persistent achievement gap between Black and White students, referring to the differences in academic performance and educational outcomes. This gap is measured through various indicators such as standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college enrollment rates. The report unveiled its findings indicating that Black students in urban and suburban schools demonstrated significantly lower scores compared to their White counterparts. Notably, majority of Black and Hispanic students attend urban and suburban schools.

The significance of these findings from CPS ASEC and NCES becomes apparent as they shed light on the higher likelihood of Black and Hispanic students feeling less confident about their capacity to pursue a bachelor’s degree. This is because students from these marginalized groups are at greater risk of coming from low-income households and attending urban schools, consequently putting them at risk of lower academic performance compared to their White counterparts.

The study’s researchers identified various factors that impact students’ confidence in their ability to pursue higher education. Among these factors is the positive influence of peer pressure from friends planning to attend college which would contribute significantly to students’ belief in their potential for success in college.

An intriguing observation from recent research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggests that peer mentorship programs can significantly impact students’ outlook on college education. The study, published in Nature Communications, focused on first-year female STEM students and found that when mentored by student peers, the positive effects persisted throughout their undergraduate years and even extended into their postgraduate lives. The mentoring program not only improved the mentees’ subjective experiences but also yielded real academic outcomes for them.

Considering the success of such mentorship programs, it is plausible to explore the implementation of freshman or sophomore mentors for high school students to encourage their college applications. These initiatives aim to create a positive and encouraging environment by providing students with relatable role models who have successfully navigated the college experience.

Nilanjana Dasgupta, senior author of the UMass Amherst study, emphasized the significance of student connections within the academic community, particularly relationships with peers who share a common identity. She believes that these relationships foster confidence and motivation, which are crucial for long-term academic and professional success. The research followed 150 female engineering students over an eight-year period and revealed that first-year mentoring helped maintain their confidence in their skills, leading to subsequent achievements, such as securing professional internships and completing undergraduate degrees in STEM fields.

While the above-mentioned study focused on college students, its findings highlight the positive impact of peer mentorship on students’ confidence and motivation. Students who participated in mentorship programs demonstrated greater confidence, pursued additional opportunities like internships, and had higher graduation rates compared to those without mentors.

In urban communities such as Houston, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) has undertaken ambitious projects to address the educational needs of its diverse student population. One such noteworthy initiative is the Resilient Outstanding Sisters Exemplifying Success (ROSES) Project, designed by HISD to provide a comprehensive education with a special emphasis on underserved students.

Erica Simon, a dedicated mentor within the ROSES Project, had some valuable insights to share regarding the positive impact of peer mentorship. According to Simon, programs like these foster self-confidence and motivation, providing these students with role models who have overcome similar challenges. “The ROSES Project equips these students with the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue higher education and succeed in their chosen paths.

Simon has personally witnessed remarkable transformations among the students. “I have seen students go on to excel in their studies, secure scholarships, and become leaders in their communities, all of which can be attributed to the support and guidance they received through the program,” she shared, “The power of mentorship lies in its ability to unlock potential and transform lives.”

It is imperative to prioritize culturally aware mentoring programs to create essential opportunities for historically marginalized students. Perhaps implementing mentorship initiatives can be a vital step in addressing the challenges highlighted in the University of Georgia study. These small-scale grassroots efforts have the potential to bring about systemic improvements and increase diversity in various professions such as STEM, medicine, and the legal field.