Can technology unlock latent social capital on campus?

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Aug 23, 2018

On the eve of a new school year, many educators and advisors may be looking to new practices and tools to give their students their best year yet. Promising new approaches should not merely  focus on driving student learning, but also on doubling down on another crucial aspect of students’ lives: their social capital.

This month we were excited to publish our latest book on innovations in education that stand to radically enrich and expand students’ access to relationships. In tandem with the book, we released a free, searchable market map of tools that are expanding students’ access to relationships. In some cases, these technology tools offer far-flung connections to professionals. In other cases, these tools help existing institutions organize and invest in connections in their own backyard.

One such tool is Mentor Collective (until recently called Shearwater International), a technology and mentoring company that just raised $600,000 in a Series Seed-1 funding round.

Mentor Collective (MC) helps postsecondary institutions recruit and train networks of volunteer mentors from their student body, alumni network, and corporate partners. Mentors serve as support figures for 1-5 mentees. Once recruited, MC provides online training services to increase the impact of these relationships on outcomes like retention and graduation. Based on their own series of randomized control studies, Mentor Collective has seen a self-reported 2-9% increase in year-to-year retention for students with access to a MC program.

I sat down with MC’s Co-Founder and CEO Jackson Boyar to learn more about their approach.

Julia: Many universities run mentorship programs, particularly in an effort to retain at-risk students. But those programs can be limited because few have the infrastructure to run those at scale. How are you tackling that dilemma?

Jackson: The average university might have 15-20 pockets of formal mentoring but no standardized infrastructure to ensure student outcomes and justify the allocation of a limited budget. We find that in-house mentoring programs often liveand dieby the tenure of individual, mission-driven administrators. These are folks who put their heart and soul into running a fantastic program for 40-50 students, but are ultimately challenged by scale and limited by the logistical complexity of recruiting, training, and managing mentors. In addition, when these charismatic individuals move on from their post, the program struggles to stay afloat.

When MC partners with an institution, we are always thinking about institutionalizing efforts that are already in place. This involves mapping the landscape of existing programs and introducing software tools and processes that can drastically reduce cost and improve student experience. For example, hundreds of hours might be spent emailing alumni volunteers, hosting live training sessions, administering a matching process, and following up to capture engagement. At MC, we use a unique combination of software and human expertise to scale deep mentorship to thousands of students with less than 2-3 administrator hours per week.

Julia: That sounds great… but could get expensive. How do you think about using technology in service of controlling costs?

Jackson: One of the largest costs of running a volunteer mentorship program is managing human expectation. We’ve seen schools struggle to provide positive experiences to mentors and mentees, even when using software platforms. On one side, enthusiastic alumni are often disappointed when their mentee is non-responsive. Similarly, we’ve seen administrators get bogged down by the inevitable “rematch” request. The relational management of mentors and mentees can become an incredibly demanding strain on resources.

To address this challenge, we help our partner manage a robust online training environment, where mentors are equipped with the tools to be successful. Once launched, relationships are supported by a chatbot and a full-time Mentorships team, which allows MC to gather comprehensive engagement data on both a cohort and individual level. This means that the traditional challenges of running a mentorship program are offloaded to specialized technology and a dedicated team of mentorship experts.

While mentorship can be tough to implement effectively, we have found that a well-run program is often viewed as a cost-saving measure. A network of trained mentors can serve as an extension of Advisement by answering student questions, unlocking social capital, and providing high-touch support where staff would otherwise not have the time.

Julia: Some of your programs serve students in online degree programs. What does mentorship look like in those contexts?

Jackson: Our ethos revolves around the idea of meeting students where they’re at. For an online learner, this means designing a mentoring experience that can be managed alongside a full-time job, family life, and other major commitments. While residential students often begin their relationships over SMS and soon after navigate to in-person meetings, online learners often gravitate toward email and phone calls. Regardless of the medium, we find it is most important to make the mentorship relevant to the student’s context. For a single parent working a full-time job, this means that the mentor must understand and empathize with the mentee’s context and needs to build rapport early.

This is where our matching algorithm and content really come into playwe find it is essential to give mentees a degree of agency over the profile of their mentor. Once matched, we provide mentors and mentees with access to 40+ discussion guides, all co-developed with our partner universities. For an online learner, this content might be oriented toward time management and salary negotiation, whereas residential students might use a module on seeking out part-time campus employment opportunities.

Julia: Sociology research has long shown that similarity breeds connection. How much do you focus your matching efforts on students from similar backgrounds and how do you think about forging trust when you’re matching students from different backgrounds?

Jackson: I love this question. The last thing we want to do is exclusively connect all incoming first-gen, low-income students with a first-gen, low-income mentor. Not only does this defeat the purpose of cultivating social capital for those who need it most, but it can also create silos of students based upon identity. In addition, if a university has a broad goal of institutionalized diversity and inclusion, I would argue that it’s just as important for privileged students to engage in programming as it is for the “at-risk” student population.

We advise our partners on the most important matching criteria and do so from a large body of data that helps us draw connections between match criteria and student success. Interestingly, the match criteria that drives the most engagement is shared challenges or experiences. However, we also have a question in our survey that asks, “Would you like to be matched with a mentor from a different background or culture?” and the student responses have been overwhelmingly supportive of cross-cultural or cross-socioeconomic status mentoring.

As you suggest, trust must be at the foundation of every mentorship. To that end, we always explain why we have matched each mentor with their mentee and provide numerous icebreakers to encourage early engagement. Our hope is that our model of mentorship can mobilize mentors from all backgrounds in a commitment to the next generation of learners.

Julia: You’re primarily helping universities build networks of support. What about networking students into careers?

Jackson: In any partnership with a university, our goal is to build a diverse and sustainable network of mentors, and increasingly, these mentors are established alumni or corporate partners with close ties to the institution. In fact, one of our most innovative partners, Northeastern University, has engaged General Electric employees as volunteer mentors on our platform. Not only is this a strong value proposition to their students (i.e., 1-on-1 support from a GE manager), but this also allows GE to build a talent pipeline through deep, meaningful relationships. As colleges are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate a return on investment, we view MC’s role as not just helping students persist, but also helping them prepare forand connect totransformative career opportunities. Every school has the network to provide this type of personalized support; they just need to unleash it in an intentional way.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.