Spotlight on Youth Mentoring

Trends, Impacts and Recommendations

Posted January 24, 2024
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A young man holds a cup of coffee and walks outdoors with his arm around another taller man's shoulder. Both are smiling.

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 20212022, 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

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