Spotlight on Youth Mentoring
Trends, Impacts and Recommendations
National Mentoring Month in January is an opportunity to highlight the critical role that mentors play in the lives of youth and the extent to which young people have access to mentors in America. Unfortunately, new data indicate that decades of mentoring progress may be eroding at a time when youth mental health needs are soaring.
What Is Mentoring and Why Does It Matter?
Mentoring involves a supportive, caring relationship between an adult and a young person, either established formally through a program or occurring naturally such as with a neighbor or coach. Formal mentoring relationships may be offered through a school‑, community- or faith-based program. These typically match an adult with a youth and create a structured mentoring experience with organized meetings and activities. Whether established formally or informally, quality mentoring relationships help young people access opportunities and offer support and guidance as they navigate life challenges. Mentors can help close opportunity gaps often observed for youth growing up in poverty or in disadvantaged communities by connecting them with new networks, resources and possibilities that otherwise may not be available.
The research is clear: Relationships play a powerful role in youth development and success. Young people need stable, caring relationships with adults in order to thrive, and mentors can provide this crucial support. In light of the alarming national youth mental health crisis, mentoring is poised to be a key part of the solution to this public health problem. Studies have found that mentoring during childhood can strengthen mental health.
How Is Youth Access to Mentors Changing?
While mentoring relationships have become more common in the last 30 years, new data show a decline in the prevalence of mentoring. A 2023 national study led by MENTOR found that the share of youth ages 18 to 21 who report having had a mentor while growing up dropped six percentage points over the past decade, from 66% in 2013 to 60% in 2022. Reports of having a naturally occurring mentor, rather than a program-provided one, dropped by 13 percentage points. More than 1 in 3 (35%) young adults say they grew up without the support of any mentor.
The decline is at least partially explained by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hindered youth access to mentors for long periods of time by closing mentoring programs, schools, after-school and sports programs, community events and other activities where youth could encounter mentors. Extended family gatherings stopped for a period as well. Experts also point to the pandemic’s economic crisis and increasing socioeconomic inequality as other possible causes of the decline, recognizing that adults who are financially struggling may not have the time or resources to serve as volunteer mentors.
Access to Mentors Is Inequitable
Across the nation, 86% of children ages 6 to 17 have at least one adult mentor in their school, neighborhood or community who provides advice or guidance, according to the 2022 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). However, access to mentors varies by socioeconomic status, household language, where children grow up and other factors.
- By income level: Children and youth from lower-income households are less likely to have mentors than those from more affluent households, a reality that the NSCH and other studies consistently demonstrate. For instance, the NSCH found that the share of children ages 6 to 17 who had a mentor increased with income level as follows:
- 77% of kids living below the federal poverty level (which was $29,678 for a family of two adults and two children in 2022);
- 82% of kids between 100% to 199% of the poverty level;
- 88% of kids between 200% to 399% of the poverty level; and
- 92% of kids living at or above 400% of the poverty level.
- By parental education level: Children’s access to mentors also differs greatly by parental education level, with mentors available for about two-thirds (68%) of kids ages 6 to 17 whose parents have less than a high school education compared to 91% of kids whose parents have a college degree or higher, according to 2022 data.
- By language: Children with a primary household language other than English are much less likely to have the support of a mentor, at 69%, versus 89% for children ages 6 to 17 in households with English as a primary language in 2022.
- For children of immigrants: Similarly, less than 8 in 10 (77%) children living with a parent born outside of the U.S. had a mentor compared with 9 in 10 (90%) kids of U.S.-born parents.
- By state: Looking across the country in 2021–2022, youth access to mentors varied widely by state, ranging from about three-fourths (76%) of Nevada teens ages 14 to 17 to nearly all teens (96%) in North Dakota and Montana, according to NSCH data on the KIDS COUNT® Data Center.
The 2023 MENTOR study, noted above, affirms several of these findings regarding mentoring inequities and provides an in-depth look at related trends in America. Among the study’s insights: Measuring mentoring prevalence as a simple dichotomy — having or not having a mentor — may not be nuanced enough. Realistically, most mentoring relationships do not last the entire duration of childhood and having a mentor at one point does not mean that young people had all of their mentoring needs met. In fact, the study found:
- Two-thirds of U.S. young adults ages 18 to 21 said there were times growing up when they did not have a mentor but wished they had one for guidance and support.
- Unmet mentoring needs were higher for LGBTQ individuals, youth in lower-income households and people of color.
Other key findings from the 2023 study include:
- Nationwide, about 1.8 million young adults ages 18 to 24 “not only didn’t have a mentor but couldn’t nominate anyone that they felt was a meaningful person” in their lives.
- Youth living in rural areas or in poverty were less likely to have mentors than those in non-rural areas or higher income households.
- Many of these young people said they didn’t know how to find a mentor or didn’t think mentors were available to them.
The Benefits of Mentoring
At the heart of it, mentoring helps meet the basic human need of letting young people know they matter and are not alone. Mentoring relationships promoted a strong sense of belonging in youth — an internal asset essential for healthy development, according to the 2023 MENTOR study. The emotional and practical support that mentors offer has also been linked to positive academic, personal and professional achievements. For example, the study reported:
- [Mentored] youth who experienced adversity while growing up were more than twice as likely to volunteer in their community and hold a leadership position in a club or sports team.
- 74% of those who had a meaningful mentor say that person contributed significantly to their later success in life.
- 85% of young people with a mentor say this key relationship has helped them with issues related to school and their education.
- 58% percent of young people say their mentor has supported their mental health.
- 60% of those under 40 years old are still drawing advice from their childhood mentors.
Recommendations for Action
MENTOR — along with public and private sector leaders and service providers — has been building a mentoring movement in the United States for more than 30 years. Based on decades of research, field capacity building, policy work, advocacy and public education, MENTOR and its partners outlined several recommended next steps in their recent study:
- Raise awareness among youth and families about the value of mentoring and how to maximize opportunities around them, especially in areas with greater needs such as rural and low-income communities.
- Increase economic stability for American households. The COVID-19 pandemic magnified existing socioeconomic inequities, placing further strain on low-income households and youth. Mental health has also worsened for youth at a time when they report less support from adults. Household stability is a necessary precursor for adults to have the time and ability to invest in being long-term volunteer mentors.
- Promote a “mentoring mindset” in adults across all sectors — e.g. education, health, child welfare, justice and immigration — that work with youth. Any adult who works with or alongside youth can be trained to be a mentor, learning how to effectively support youth and foster positive youth relationships.
- Place greater emphasis on supporting youth identity development and feelings of belonging through mentoring relationships. Across four generations of individuals who reported having mentors in the 2023 study, two of the most meaningful forms of support were nurturing feelings of belonging and supporting identity development.
- Continue to identify and reach young people who are least likely to have mentors or meaningful relationships, such as the groups identified above.
During National Mentoring Month and beyond, everyone can make a difference for youth, including by becoming a mentor (formally or informally), educating oneself or others, engaging in advocacy, supporting mentoring programs and more.
Mentoring Resources From Casey and Its Partners
- See all data on youth and young adults on the KIDS COUNT Data Center
- Become a mentor, find a mentor or learn more
- Explore the role mentors have played in the lives of Americans over the last half-century
- Learn how young adults view social connectedness and access resources