Student Well-Being

What Is the ‘Mentoring Gap,’ and How Can Schools Help Close It?

By Evie Blad — January 27, 2023 3 min read
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Adults under 40 are more likely to say they had a mentor growing up than their peers in older generations. But that promising trend has hit some turbulence in recent years as members of Generation Z are less likely to report having had a mentoring relationship than millennials.

That’s the conclusion of a new analysis by MENTOR, an organization that seeks to close the “mentoring gap,” a term used to describe the unmet need among children and young people for adults to help advise and support them.

Schools and community groups have worked for decades to recruit and support a more diverse, intentional group of mentors to meet the needs of students of all ethnicities, genders, and language backgrounds.

Those efforts have taken on additional urgency in the last few years, as districts work to help students gain stability after years of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite a great deal of progress in the last 30 years, this report shows we need an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensure this youngest generation gets the mentoring support they need,” said Tim Wills, the chief impact officer of MENTOR.

The findings come from a nationally representative survey of 2,639 adults completed by a marketing research firm in collaboration with the Youth Empowerment in Schools and Systems lab at the University of South Carolina.

Generational trends in youth mentoring

Sixty-two percent of respondents classified as Gen Z, ages 18-24, reported that they had a mentor growing up. That’s compared to 45 percent of baby boomers, ages 57-80.

Those figures include both mentors matched with young people through formal programs and naturally occurring mentors—relationships with adults like teachers or family members that develop into mentorships over time.

The growth in mentoring seems to have come through the efforts of targeted programs. Twenty-seven percent of Gen Z respondents said they had a program mentor, making them three times more likely to report such a relationship than baby boomers, just 9 percent of which reported having a program mentor in their youth.

The growth in formal mentoring is a reflection of efforts by schools and community groups in recent decades. Those efforts include programs that allow older students to mentor their younger peers, better training and support to ensure mentors are able to maintain relationships for the long term, and partnerships with employers to match workers with students in mentor partnerships.

Recent declines in mentoring trends

While the long-term data shows a growth in mentoring, a closer look at the youngest survey respondents also shows Gen Z trailing a bit behind millennials.

While 69 percent of respondents ages 25-40 said they had a youth mentor, that number was 64 percent for respondents ages 22-24 and 60 percent for respondents ages 18-21.

“While the pandemic explains some of this drop-off, trends in the data suggest this decline in mentoring started well before the pandemic,” the report says.

Among other findings:

  • The survey results showed a correlation between mentoring and a sense of belonging.
  • Respondents across all age groups said the biggest barrier to mentorship was that they didn’t know how to find a mentor. The second biggest barrier was that they didn’t see the value.
  • Respondents who grew up in low-income families were more likely to report an unmet desire for a mentor growing up.

Closing the mentoring gap

The report has several recommendations for closing the mentoring gap and for ensuring mentoring relationships are meaningful.

The country needs to take an “all-hands-on-deck approach” to mentoring, the report says. That call comes as educators report heightened concerns about student behavior, development, and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. A comprehensive approach would involve public and private efforts to build mentoring programs and better outreach to make families and students from all demographic backgrounds aware of existing options, the report said.

Educators should foster a “mentoring mindset,” the report said, leveraging the relationships—both in and outside of school—as “a core component of learning and holistic student development.”

Across generations, survey respondents reported a sense of belonging as one of the greatest benefits of mentoring—and mentoring programs should focus on building that component, MENTOR said.

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