What is it? Mentoring, counselling and role model interventions are designed to encourage students to perceive higher education (HE) as a desirable destination and a place where they would belong. These interventions often offer support to apply to higher education.
Evidence? There are a number of studies from the UK which suggest these interventions are associated with an increase in students’ attitudes/aspirations, and in some cases attainment and HE progression . However, it’s important to note that the existing evidence is not ‘causal’ (in other words, it can’t tell us definitively that the intervention is effective) although there is some stronger evidence of impact from the USA, which would benefit from replication in a UK context.
It is also important to note that recent analysis conducted by TASO in collaboration with the Higher Education Access Tracker suggests mentoring is associated with lower HE progression and found mixed results in relation to attainment. However, this analysis was based on large-scale data from a number of different programmes, and could mask significant diversity in the activities included.
Should HE providers use mentoring/counselling/role model interventions to support to widen participation? Providers can use these kinds of approaches to influence students’ attitudes/aspirations. There is a less strong evidence base for an associated effect on HE participation. Given these are intensive interventions (both in terms of staff and student time) there is strong case for seeking more information on the efficacy versus other less intensive approaches. Where Higher Education Providers (HEPs) run mentoring or counselling programmes, they should seek to evaluate them to understand if they are having the desired impact see the TASO evaluation guidance for more information on how to do this.
The existing evidence also suggests approaches differ substantially between programmes, so there is a clear need to evaluate these activities locally.
What is this intervention?
The advice on this page relates to interventions focused on a relationship between two individuals where a more experienced person provides support to a less experienced individual, including some combination of (Crisp et al, 2017):
- Psychological or emotional support (e.g. to help students feel like they would belong in HE)
- Study and career support (e.g. to help students progress in their studies)
- Academic knowledge support (e.g. to support academic skills development)
- Acting as a role model
This is distinct from tutoring, which focuses specifically on rising attainment in particular subjects.
The existing evidence relates to:
- Mentoring – normally a sustained programme of engagement between a more experienced mentor (for example, an undergraduate) and a less experienced mentee (for example, a secondary school student). The mentor uses their experience to provide general guidance and support to the mentee.
- Counselling – similar to mentoring but normally with a more structured programme of support focused on a specific development goal (for example, completing an HE application).
- Role model interventions – feature individuals who are chosen to inspire a student to perceive HE as a desirable and attainable destination (for example, a current undergraduate giving a talk at a school). Both mentoring and counselling are included in this umbrella term. Role models can also feature as part of light-touch interventions involving limited interaction with students.
This page focuses on support offered, or promoted to, students before they enter HE. This support can also be made available to students after they enter HE – for more information, see mentoring, coaching counselling and role models (post-entry). There is also some overlap with information, advice and guidance interventions as these programmes are sometimes delivered by a role model.
Mentoring, counselling and role model interventions may also form part of broader programmes of engagement with students – for more information, see multi-intervention outreach.
What is the target group?
The information on this page is based on mentoring, counselling and role model interventions designed to address issues faced by students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups. The evidence we’ve used is drawn from studies that focus on:
- Students from lower-socioeconomic status groups
- Black and minority ethnic (BAME) students
How effective is it?
There is some evidence from the UK to suggest that some forms of mentoring, counselling and role model interventions are associated with positive effects on students’ attitudes/aspirations relating to HE. Much of this evidence is drawn from qualitative research and survey data, which captures the attitudes/aspirations of students before and after taking part. A small number of UK studies also suggest students taking part in these activities have better outcomes, in terms of aspirations/attitudes and HE participation, than those who don’t (by using ‘comparison’ groups of non-participants). For example, an evaluation of online mentoring in the UK has shown a correlation between participation and both HE entry and attainment outcomes, based on tracking students over time (Brightside, 2020).
Recent analysis conducted by TASO in collaboration with the Higher Education Access Tracker suggests mentoring is associated with lower HE progression and found mixed results in relation to attainment (TASO, 2021). However, this was large-scale data analysis which collated a diverse range of mentoring activities, and did not explore the characteristics of individual programmes and which elements might be more or less effective. The existing evidence suggests approaches differ substantially between programmes; therefore, more local impact evaluations which focus on specific programmes are needed to confidentially assess the effect of those particular activities.
We must be careful about how we interpret the evidence discussed above. The methods used can only tell us that there seems to be a positive association between these activities and student outcomes. They cannot tell us definitively that the activities are having an impact (i.e. they cannot provide ‘causal evidence’). This is because the students who take part in these activities are likely to be systematically different from those who don’t – for example, even if the students are demographically similar, they are likely to have different levels of motivation. So, when we compare their outcomes with those of other students, we risk overestimating the efficacy of mentoring/counselling/role model interventions.
There is some stronger evidence of impact from the USA. Several research studies have found a causal impact of mentoring/counselling on HE participation. These studies would benefit from replication in a UK context.
What features seem to be important?
Currently, we do not have a strong enough causal evidence base to make claims about the most important features of mentoring or counselling interventions.
The existing evidence suggests approaches differ substantially from programme to programme in terms of focus/goals, intensity, duration and the target population. While evidence of a positive impact in one study is helpful, we shouldn’t assume results transfer to different contexts or with other student groups.
We recommend that HEPs seek to identify the most effective features of mentoring, counselling, and role model interventions at an individual programme-level.
There is some evidence that the more successful programmes are those where mentors/counsellors are trained and demonstrate consistency/confidence (J. Sanders & Higham, 2012; O’Sullivan et al., 2017).
More broadly, there is qualitative evidence to suggest role model interventions are most effective when students see the role model as relatable (Gartland, 2014). This finding is often interpreted as requiring students and role models to be from the same background or of the same gender. Role models are also likely to be most effective when they can credibly represent HE as a desirable and attainable destination and they are seen as successful individuals (Morgenroth et al., 2015).
What don’t we know
Much of the existing research has taken place in the USA. Causal evidence of the effectiveness of these interventions in the UK is very limited. The UK-based evidence is focused on intermediate outcomes (such as a change in aspirations, confidence or awareness), rather than actual HE participation. We are lacking a large enough evidence-base to make claims about the relative efficacy of the different approaches (for example, mentoring versus coaching) or about the most important features of mentoring or counselling interventions.
Given that these are intensive interventions (both in terms of staff and student time), we should expect mentoring and counselling programmes to have a bigger impact than less intensive outreach approaches. More evidence on the relative scale of the impact of these versus other approaches would help HE providers understand how best to structure their overall outreach offering.
Where does the evidence come from?
TASO’s advice on the efficacy of mentoring, counselling and role model interventions in widening participation is based on evidence from seven causal research studies. The studies use experimental or quasi-experimental techniques to assess the impact of this support on HE participation. Most of this research took place in the USA.
This advice is also supported by eight empirical studies, including four evaluation reports shared confidentially with TASO. These studies use data to examine the associations between participation mentoring, counselling and role model interventions and student outcomes. Most of this evidence comes from the UK. It is primarily focused on student attitudes and aspirations, although more recent reports have also examined the link with HE participation.
We have focused on evidence produced in the last 10 years and, in the case of UK-based evidence, since the student finance reforms were introduced in 2012. Older evidence has been included if is exceptionally relevant.
The key references are given below.
Causal studies on the impact of mentoring, counselling and role models:
Castleman, B., Arnold, K., & Wartman, K. (2012). Stemming the Tide of Summer Melt: An Experimental Study of the Effects of Post-High School Summer Intervention on Low-Income Students’ College Enrollment. Journal Of Research On Educational Effectiveness, 5(1), 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/19345747.2011.618214
Carrell, S., & Sacerdote, B. (2017). Why Do College-Going Interventions Work?. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 9(3), 124-151. https://doi.org/10.1257/app.20150530
Castleman, B. L. & Goodman, J. (2014). Intensive college counseling and the college enrollment choices of low income students. HKS working paper.
Castleman, B., & Page, L. (2015). Summer nudging: Can personalized text messages and peer mentor outreach increase college going among low-income high school graduates?. Journal Of Economic Behavior & Organization, 115, 144-160. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2014.12.008
Moore, S., Raney, J., Ritter, G. W., & Higgins, K. K. (2015). Second Year Results from Razor C.O.A.C.H. Arkansas Education Reports. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.uark.edu/oepreport/13
Sanders, M., Burgess, S., Chande, R., Dilnot, C., Kozman, E., & Macmillan, L. (2018). Role models, mentoring and university applications – evidence from a crossover randomised controlled trial in the United Kingdom. Widening Participation And Lifelong Learning, 20(4), 57-80. https://doi.org/10.5456/nvpll.20a.57
Sanders, M., Chande, R., Kozman, E., & Leunig, T. (2018). Can Role Models Help Encourage Young People to Apply to (Selective) Universities: Evidence From a Large Scale English Field Experiment. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3305176
Empirical studies on the impact of mentoring, counselling and role models:
Download our summary report with HEAT: An investigation into the relationship between outreach participation and KS4 attainment/ HE progression.
Aimhigher Birmingham & Solihull. (2010). Birmingham & Solihull Associates Scheme Evaluation Report 2009-2010.
Brightside. (2020). The power of online mentoring.
Jeavans, E., & Jenkins, S. (2017). Shattering Stereotypes Pilot Project 2016/17, Final Evaluation Report. South East Physics Network Outreach.
O’Sullivan, K., Mulligan, R., Kuster, M., Smith, R., & Hannon, C. (2017). A college focused mentoring programme for students in socio-economically disadvantaged schools: the impact of mentoring relationship and frequency on college-going confidence, application efficacy and aspirations. Widening Participation And Lifelong Learning, 19(2), 113-141. https://doi.org/10.5456/wpll.19.2.113
Other selected references
Aimhigher West Midlands (2019). Impact Case Studies, Full Report.
Crisp, G., Baker, V., Griffin, K., Lunsford, L., & Pifer, M. (2017). Mentoring Undergraduate Students. ASHE Higher Education Report, 43(1), 7-103. https://doi.org/10.1002/aehe.20117
Cummings, C., Laing, K., Law, J., McLaughlin, J., Papps, I., Todd, L., & Woolner, P. (2012). CAN CHANGING ASPIRATIONS AND ATTITUDES IMPACT ON EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT? A REVIEW OF INTERVENTIONS. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Gartland, C. (2014). STEM strategies. Institute of Education Press.
Hunter, K., Wilson, A., & McArthur, K. (2017). The role of Intergenerational Relationships in Challenging Educational Inequality: Improving Participation of Working-Class Pupils in Higher Education. Journal Of Intergenerational Relationships, 16(1-2), 5-25. https://doi.org/10.1080/15350770.2018.1404382
Kerrigan, M., & Carpenter, C. (2009). Mentoring in Partnership: An Evaluation of the Aimhigher Personal Adviser Programme. Aimhigher Nottinghamshire.
Moore, J., Sanders, J., & Higham, L. (2013). Literature review of research into widening participation to higher education. Report to HEFCE and OFFA. AimHigher Research & Consultancy Network.
Morgenroth, T., Ryan, M., & Peters, K. (2015). The Motivational Theory of Role Modeling: How Role Models Influence Role Aspirants’ Goals. Review Of General Psychology, 19(4), 465-483. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000059
Sanders, J. and Higham, L. (2012) The role of higher education students in widening access, retention and success. A literature synthesis of the Widening Access, Student Retention and Success National Programmes Archive. York: Higher Education Academy.