“Near-peer” mentors can help high school seniors find their way to college, according to a new State Board of Education study.
In 2016-17, 10 Idaho high schools hired near-peer mentors — recent college graduates who help seniors apply for colleges, scholarships and federal financial aid.
High schools with near-peer programs had a higher college enrollment rate than other comparable high schools, according to the study.
Near-peer mentoring is a “promising practice” that should be studied more closely, wrote Cathleen McHugh, the State Board’s chief research officer.
This year, the state is spending $9 million on college and career advising programs — all designed to help high school students chart their future, and improve Idaho’s stubbornly low postsecondary completion rates. School districts and charter schools can choose from several advising approaches, including near-peer mentoring.
The research results
McHugh compared the 10 schools with near-peer programs to similar high schools in the state. She looked for comparison schools with similar poverty rates and minority student populations.
High schools with near-peer programs see about a 4 percentage point increase in college enrollment rates in the first year of the program. In subsequent years, the increase grows to 5 percentage points.
Near-peer programs are also more likely to have an impact on male students, increasing their college enrollment rates by 6 percentage points. That’s significant because male students are less likely than female students to enroll in college — a pronounced pattern in Idaho, and across the nation.
How it works — and what it costs
In North Idaho’s Lakeland School District, near-peer mentors begin their work with ninth-graders, teaching a career exploration unit. But the mentors spend most of their time working with high school seniors, helping them fill out college paperwork. Even after a senior chooses a college, the mentors’ work isn’t done.
“In the spring once seniors have chosen their school of choice and have been accepted, the Near Peers provide assistance to ensure they are signed up for dorm rooms, know orientation and registration dates, and entrance exams that are required,” the Lakeland district said in its annual report on college and career advising programs.
All school districts and charter schools are required to file these annual reports with the State Board, outlining their college and career advising program strategies and breaking down how they are spending their share from Idaho’s $9 million program budget.
The reports suggest that the near-peer program is something of a low-cost option. The young mentors, entering the work force after graduating college, command far smaller salaries than a full-fledged counselor. The mentors often make less than a beginning teacher.
In the past, the Jerome School District has used grant dollars and the federal Americorps job program to build its mentoring program. In 2017-18, the district earmarked $25,200 of college and career advising money to hire a full-time mentoring “transition coordinator” at the high school.
In 2017-18 Lakeland district, earmarked $112,555 in college and career advising money to cover salaries and benefits for 2.4 mentoring positions at its two high schools. The salaries translate to $33,965 per full-time position.
So, what about the 60 percent goal?
But even if the near-peer programs encourage students to enroll in college, as McHugh’s research indicates, that doesn’t fulfill the state’s long-term objective.
Education, political and business leaders want to see more 25- to 34-year-olds complete a postsecondary program — whether that means receiving a two- or four-year college degree or obtaining a professional certificate. Idaho has made halting progress toward its “60 percent goal.”
So McHugh concludes this recent study by suggesting another project: to see whether students from near-peer mentoring programs are more likely to stay in college and get their degree.
“(This is) key to understanding whether or not a near peer program can affect Idaho’s educational attainment goal,” said McHugh.