How Colleges Can Support More Students Using the Power of Peers

Opinion | Higher Education

How Colleges Can Support More Students Using the Power of Peers

By Chelsea Waite     Jul 19, 2021

How Colleges Can Support More Students Using the Power of Peers

When Nathaan Demers worked as a counselor on a college campus, he juggled a caseload of at least 60 students—with only 20 clinic hours a week.

“The math just doesn’t work out,” he says.

It’s an imbalanced equation replicated widely throughout higher education. Students facing complex personal circumstances and systemic barriers to opportunity need support services—like academic help, advising, mental health support, and career guidance—to persist and thrive in college. Yet those needs often overwhelm what college professional staff can offer.

And the problem is only growing: The number of students seeking counseling has doubled in the last five years on some campuses, given increased rates of anxiety and depression, as well as decreased stigma when it comes to seeking help. That's what prompted the company where Demers now works, Grit Digital Health, to develop an app to help college students combat loneliness, a precursor to anxiety and depression, by building connections in the real world.

Why is it so hard to scale student services? In large part, it comes down to the resources they require. Services staffed by professionals and those predicated on one-to-one support are difficult to expand in an era of shrinking budgets and lack of will to spend money on students who need the most help. Even programs with proven success at boosting graduation rates for low-income students, and at a lower cost per degree than without the program, have failed to scale due to both a lack of funds for community colleges and budgetary red tape.

But even with tight budgets, all institutions can help students access one resource hiding in plain sight: their classmates. Schools have an immense opportunity to activate students’ peer networks to tackle the shortages they face across mental health, social, academic, and guidance support services.

Flexibility and Convenience

Recently, the nonprofit Christensen Institute researched innovative tools and programs leveraging students’ peer networks to provide these supports. Our resulting report suggests there’s a growing trend toward scalable peer-to-peer models for student services.

Many of the tools and programs we researched are designed to transcend the barriers that keep support services limited, hidden, or out of reach for many of the students who could benefit from them. They operate with lower costs, or with greater cost efficiencies, than models fully reliant on professional staff and one-to-one support. They transform complex services into simpler ones that are easier for students to access anytime, anywhere. (The Christensen Institute has no relationship with these companies or business leaders.)

Peer tutoring is one example of how these potential benefits converge. The University of Florida used a platform called Knack to increase its peer tutoring hours from 1,500 to 9,000 hours in a single semester, reaching 15 percent of the student body. Additionally, 42 percent of the online tutoring sessions happened outside of traditional work hours. In total, 63 percent of students using the platform had never before accessed campus tutoring. One reason for the effort’s success may be because the platform supports on-demand tutoring services at flexible hours that don’t require scheduling tutors in advance, according to Knack founder Samyr Qureshi.

Mental health is another arena that may benefit from peer-to-peer support systems. Many colleges have long relied on students to serve as formal advocates or informal allies for classmates who have experienced assault or who are at risk for self-harm. Now, some digital tools allow colleges to expand on this by offering round-the-clock, peer-to-peer services. For example, online community Togetherall allows students to connect anonymously with moderation offered by clinicians. The company reports that half of users say posting in the community is the first time they have shared about their mental health openly, and over a third report that Togetherall is the only mental health support they are seeking—including from loved ones.

Preserving the Human Element

It’s not a coincidence that technology platforms are behind many of these student-to-student models that make distributed support services more affordable and feasible at scale. They can also grow human connection in a way that high-volume, automated services too often lack. As some colleges turn to chatbots and online portals stocked with information when staff-to-student ratios for services get too high, leaders should keep in mind that such approaches can optimize for conveying information at the expense of nurturing students’ networks.

Peer-to-peer models, on the other hand, can achieve scale rapidly because of the value of a human relationship and the sheer number of peers (rather than staff) available to help one another. Sanat Mohapatra, the founder of a student-run, anonymous online community called Unmasked, recalled his early insight about peer-to-peer support: “I built the app thinking about supply and demand. There are a lot of students who want to help each other, but don’t have access to students who need support.” For many professionals in the student services world who are used to supply shortages, an excess of students wanting to offer support is a refreshing problem to solve.

Using Peers Selectively

Colleges considering peer-to-peer models should recognize that while leveraging peer networks can alleviate the complexity students face in getting the support they need, that doesn't mean peers are always best positioned to tackle complex challenges on one another’s behalf. Rather than pursuing a full-on gig economy strategy in which on-demand student workers replace staff roles, leaders should continuously assess where peers have a distinct advantage as either messengers for key information or as providers of direct support. Where that advantage is absent or unknown, and whenever students face particularly complex challenges, peer supports will need to remain supplements, not replacements, to professional staff.

Leaders should also be wary of treating student-to-student support as an easy route to free labor. Some formal peer support roles are best seen as an opportunity for more students to earn while they learn. For example, University of Florida’s partnership with Knack has helped create more than 200 on-demand peer tutor jobs. Other peer support roles may be better suited to nonfinancial compensation such as academic credit.

Some programs may also ensure that volunteer roles pay dividends for volunteers themselves by measuring the benefits that students in support roles receive, not just those they offer. There is substantial evidence, for instance, that giving mental health support has therapeutic benefits to the giver.

Mental health or academic gains aren’t the only benefits that result from these approaches—peer relationships can be valuable resources in themselves. Qureshi says, “We want to be known as a tutoring platform with incredible side effects” in the form of new peer connections. Indeed, most compelling about these peer-to-peer platforms are their potential not just to solve a scale problem when it comes to student services, but to create a far more student-centered and networked college experience.

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