The Limits of Mentors

The Limits of Mentors

THE SOURCE: “Longer-Term Impacts of Mentoring, Educational Services, and Learning Incentives: Evidence From a Randomized Trial in the United States” by Núria Rodríguez-Planas, in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Oct. 2012.

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What happens when a mediocre high school student from a disadvantaged background receives special attention? Beginning in 1995, at a cost of nearly $25,000 per pupil over five years, the federal Quantum Opportunity Program put this question to the test. The program, whose goal was to raise high school graduation and college enrollment rates, showered 580 students at 11 high schools in cities such as Washington and Houston with professional mentors, tutoring, and cash awards throughout their high school years. The long-term results were decidedly mixed, reports Núria Rodríguez-Planas, a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany.

Initially, Quantum students graduated from high school or obtained a GED both more quickly and at higher rates than their peers in a control group, largely thanks to strides made by female participants in the program. But two years after the initial survey, that advantage disappeared as high school dropouts in the control group reversed course and earned GEDs.

Employment was also a disappointment. Five years after the end of the program, the Quantum students were no more likely than the control group to be holding down a job. The poor performance of Quantum men was the key cause. The women in the program were more likely to be employed, and many had higher-quality jobs—they were 25 percent more likely to have a job with health insurance than women in the control group.

A more dubious distinction set the Quantum cohort apart: By the time they reached their mid-twenties, they were actually a bit more likely to have been arrested for a crime than the control group. One possible explanation is that by pleading with schools and the police on their charges’ behalf, mentors may have sheltered these young people from consequences when they got into trouble, thus increasing the likelihood of riskier behavior down the road.     

Quantum’s biggest bright spot was its impact on education. Students in the program went to college at higher rates than their peers. Women can claim credit for this trend, too. They were 20 percent more likely to attend a postsecondary institution (nearly 69 percent of Quantum women versus 55 percent of the control group), while the impact for men was half that much (and deemed statistically insignificant). Monetary incentives may have played a part in this superior performance; Quantum graduates who enrolled in college received an average of more than $1,000 in awards from the program.

Quantum was “widely regarded as successful” in short-term evaluations conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Rodríguez-Planas says the picture over the long run is not so rosy.