AAC&U News, December 2018
Facts & Figures

Alumni Reflect on Relationships with Mentors

College professors can have a life-long impact on their students, influencing everything from students’ sense of belonging and well-being to the courses they take, the majors they choose, and the careers they pursue. According to a recent survey of 5,100 college alumni by Strada Education Network and Gallup, “studies have found professors to be particularly effective mentors because students who had relationships with their professors boast both greater academic achievement, a short-term benefit, and higher self-confidence, a long-term benefit that extends beyond the classroom and graduation.” The survey asked alumni about who their mentors were, what kind of advice they received, what career counseling they got, and how relationships with professors affect feelings of satisfaction and perceptions of rigor. Though the report confirms how important mentors are, it also found that some students (especially students of color) have significantly less access to these beneficial relationships.

Who Mentors Students?

  • Just 25 percent of alumni strongly agreed, and another 18 percent somewhat agreed, that they had a mentor in college who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams.
  • Of alumni who graduated recently (2013–15) and had a mentor in college, 64 percent said their mentor was a professor.
  • These professors most commonly taught arts and humanities courses (43 percent), while others taught science and engineering (28 percent), social sciences (20 percent), or business (9 percent).
  • Troublingly, alumni of color were much less likely than white alumni to say that their mentor was a professor (see fig. 1). Alumni who were first-generation college students were also slightly less likely than others to say that a professor was their mentor (61 percent and 66 percent, respectively).
  • According to the report, “Prior research has suggested that mentees seek mentors with similar experiences and backgrounds, and that minority students often seek mentors of the same race/ethnicity and find information more helpful when their mentor is of the same race/ethnicity.” To ensure all students can benefit from mentorship, the report recommends that institutions continue to diversify their faculty and staff.
  • Most alumni who recently graduated keep in touch with their mentor. According to the report, “46 [percent] say they have communicated with their mentor in the past three months. Only 29 [percent] say it has been a year or more since they last communicated with their mentor.”

Figure 1.

F&F Dec Figure 1.1.png


 FGCS = First-Generation College Student

Career and Academic Advice

  • Almost all alumni with mentors said that their mentor gave academic (92 percent) and career (90 percent) advice.
  • Mentors were less likely to give advice about finances (26 percent), personal lives and relationships (54 percent), or physical/mental health (53 percent). However, of alumni with the “strongest mentoring relationships” (those who strongly agreed they had a mentor), 62 percent say that “their mentor advised them on their personal life or relationships.”
  • Alumni were more likely to say that career advice they received from faculty or staff was helpful (49 percent) than advice from the campus career center (30 percent).
  • Around a quarter of alumni said they never used services from the career center (27 percent) or spoke with faculty or staff outside the center about their future careers (23 percent). According to the report, “In total, 12 [percent] of graduates report never receiving career advice from either of these sources, suggesting that a meaningful percentage of students graduate without any guidance from faculty or staff members about their potential career path.”
  • While alumni of color were less likely to have had a mentor than white alumni, Hispanic and black alumni were more likely to have spoken with faculty or staff about their career or to visit the career center (see fig. 2).
  • The report suggests that these students’ relationships with faculty “are more functional—focused on the giving and receiving of career advice,” the report said. “But the interaction between minority students and faculty stops short of developing into mentoring relationships.”

Figure 2.

F&F Dec Figure 2.png

Effects of Professor Relationships on Academic Rigor

  • Citing prior Gallup research, the report said that 42 percent of college alumni in the United States “strongly agree that they were challenged academically at their institution.”
  • These students were “3.6 times more likely to say they were prepared for life outside of college,” the report said, and they are 2.4 times more likely to say “their education was worth the cost.”
  • Feelings of rigor vary by institutional type, with alumni of private nonprofit institutions (52 percent) the most likely to strongly agree that they were challenged academically. This is followed by alumni of public (38 percent) and for-profit (32 percent) institutions.
  • Engineering (54 percent) and science (50 percent) majors were the most likely to report being challenged, followed by humanities (41 percent), social sciences (40 percent), and business (35 percent).
  • The report connects alumni perceptions of their education's rigor to their relationships with faculty. According to the report, 69 percent of alumni “who strongly agree that their professors cared about them also strongly agree that they were challenged academically, compared with only about a third of those who do not strongly agree that their professors cared about them [35 percent]. Similarly, graduates who strongly agree that they had at least one professor who made them excited about learning are more than twice as likely as those who do not strongly agree to say they were challenged academically in college.”


Images are included by permission of Gallup from their 2018 alumni survey published with Strada Education Network, Examining the Student and Mentor Relationship.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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