Closing Equity Gaps through a Peer Mentoring Program: The Impact of Being an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant
We know that high-impact practices (HIPs) are key to creating a powerful academic experience for undergraduate students. As the Boyer 2030 Report articulates (drawing on the foundational work of George Kuh), HIPs constitute “transformative educational experiences” that support student success, requiring “considerable time and effort from students, meaningful interactions between students and faculty, collaboration among individuals with diverse perspectives, consistent feedback and iteration, real-world application and practice, and opportunities for reflection” (p. 23). Kuh’s research further documents that HIPs typically have a disproportionately positive impact on historically underrepresented students and that those students are significantly less likely to volunteer to participate in HIPs.
Consequently, the Boyer 2030 report calls upon our campuses to “[make] evidence-based and high-impact practices core, not ‘extra’” (p. 24). Embedding experiential learning in required courses, or mandating internships are strategies for meeting this challenge. Another strategy is to develop peer mentorship programs that also provide participants with the structured reflection and collaboration with faculty that are the hallmarks of quality HIPs, and to structure these programs in ways that make them attractive and accessible to those students who are most likely to benefit from participation within them.
The undergraduate teaching assistant (UTA) program within the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University is one such program. A recent examination of a decade of data from this initiative demonstrates clearly the potential benefit of peer mentoring programs to the academic success of the student mentors themselves.
The program: developing leadership and exploring the hidden curriculum
The UTA program has served more than 1,850 students since its inception in 2008. Students who participate in the program enroll in a one-credit experiential service-learning course each semester (typically two semesters, up to four) to assist faculty who teach our required, foundational, interdisciplinary general education three-course sequence. The number of faculty mentors varies year to year, but typically, an average of 30–40 percent of the department’s 65 faculty have UTAs each semester, while the number of students who serve as UTAs is approximately 100–120 each semester, usually during their sophomore year. (For additional scholarship on the program, see Gordon et al.  and Murray .)
As part of the program, UTAs create their own learning goals and read from a curated list of texts related to student success, classroom best practices, and trends in higher education. These readings change yearly; recent ones include “Who Gets to Graduate?” by Paul Tough, “Raising Graduation Rates Takes a Culture Shift—and a Lot More” by Beth McMurtrie, and “Virtual Classrooms Can Be as Unequal as Real Ones” by Kaveh Waddell. These texts are a required component of their experiential service-learning reflection. In their conversations with their faculty mentors and with the students for whom they serve, UTAs thus reflect on how best to support their fellow students—and themselves—as they navigate their undergraduate experience.
These students receive significant mentoring during their sophomore year from their faculty even as they develop their leadership, communication, and collaborative skills by performing their classroom duties. This mentorship helps to develop a sense of community, belonging, and purpose; it provides the UTAs with a stronger understanding of how universities function and how to succeed within them (exposing the hidden curriculum that often trips up first-generation students). These qualities support the UTAs’ retention and graduation in two ways: they keep the UTAs motivated to complete their degrees and lessen the likelihood that they will transfer to another institution.
Inclusivity in the UTA selection process
While participating in our UTA program is not mandatory, the processes by which students are recruited into the program are structured to encourage the selection of a diverse student population. Faculty mentors actively encourage a diverse pool of UTAs, reaching out to students who are currently enrolled in our foundational classes (VCU’s undergraduate enrollment is majority minority). Departmental guidance shared with faculty mentors encourages them to identify potential UTAs “that represent a wealth of different backgrounds, interests, personalities, genders, races, sexual orientations, etc.” (internal departmental document). They are also encouraged to identify “UTAs who diversify the front-of-classroom team—that is, people who don’t look like/act like/have similar experiences to the instructor her/himself.” Many faculty mentors deliberately select UTAs who differ from them in gender, race, or other background characteristics. Faculty also encourage students to nominate themselves.
Significantly, in making the final UTA selections, faculty mentors consider which students might benefit the most from serving as UTAs, who are not always those with the highest grades in the course. Faculty consider qualities such as leadership skills and determination. The general result of these practices is that the UTA cohort is exceptionally diverse. In other words, our selection practices open the door to intense mentorship for students who typically might not receive that focused attention from a faculty member. During the period from 2012 to 2022, more than half of our UTAs identified as non-white.
Retention and graduation rate data
From 2012 to 2022, the graduation rate for those students who, as sophomores, served as UTAs was 19 percent higher than for students who did not; students who served as UTAs for the third course in the sequence—some of whom were sophomores—had a graduation rate 33 percent higher than that of nonparticipants in the program. While it may be reasonable to assume that students who become UTAs are committed to their academic success, there are many factors that can push even dedicated students to either stop out or to transfer to another institution. And we know that professors and the student classroom experience is key. As Jörg Waltje states so succinctly, “When students feel like they belong on a campus . . . they are more likely to stay in school and graduate. Professors are of utmost importance here: they can make or break a college career.”
When we analyze various demographic subsets of the data, the positive impact on particular groups of students becomes more striking and more demonstrative of the program’s function as a valuable HIP.
Men who served as UTAs during their sophomore year had a 15 percent higher one-year retention rate and a 24 percent higher graduation rate than men who did not serve as UTAs. The differential in retention and graduation rates between men and women nationally has been well documented, and it is a trend visible on our campus as well; notwithstanding, the graduation rate for males who participated in the UTA program as sophomores exceeded that of their female counterparts (85.6 percent vs. 82.5 percent). More specifically, for the 57 men of color who served as UTAs for UNIV 111/112 between 2012 and 2017, the graduation rate was 85.4 percent compared to 66.6 percent for non-UTA men of color.
Historically underrepresented minorities (URMs)
As a HIP, serving as a peer mentor is especially influential for underrepresented students. While there is a seven-point difference in the one-year retention rate for URM students serving as UTAs, the graduation rate is nearly 15 points higher than for those URM students who did not participate in the program.
PELL and first-generation students
For both PELL-eligible and first-generation students, the impact of our UTA program is clear and understandable. First, the difference in one-year retention rates is 7 percent higher for PELL UTAs and as compared to PELL students not serving in the program. In terms of graduation rates, the increase is a substantial 20 percent increase. For first generation students, the correlation is more modest, but still noteworthy. First-gen students comprise about 29 percent of the sophomore UTA cohort (roughly consistent with their percentage of the student body as a whole). When compared with first-gen students not in the UTA program, our first-gen UTAs have a 5 percent higher one-year retention rate, a 10 percent higher two-year rate, and a 12 percent higher graduation rate.
Creating agency and support
UTAs both receive and give significant experience in mentorship, which may have particular value for students who come from less-college-prepared backgrounds. UTAs attend each class session (or its online equivalent) with their faculty mentor as well as a weekly staff meeting, where they get an insider view into their faculty mentor’s pedagogy and classroom—a particular benefit to students who may not have other influences helping them understand the structure and benefits of education.
UTAs have the opportunity to understand not only curricular preparation but also the various tools—and, crucially, rationales—that faculty employ to care for and support students who are struggling, to hold students accountable, and to foster and model engagement and responsibility. That means that, in many cases, UTAs see the intellectual, emotional, and social support goals that are part of the focused inquiry courses’ mission. Because UTAs also mentor other students, the agency they gain into higher education is practical and immediate. It is no surprise that while under their mentor’s direct supervision, UTAs do well. Many UTAs continue their relationships with their UTA cohorts and faculty mentors beyond their UTA year, sustaining contacts that will support them throughout their entire undergraduate career, through graduation, and beyond.
We know that there is no silver bullet that will ensure that all the students who matriculate into our institutions will complete their degrees, but our program shows the positive impact that engaging in a course-based, faculty-supervised experiential leadership experience can have on students who are most likely not to complete their degrees at our institutions.
Virginia Wray Totaro is an associate professor of focused inquiry and the director of assessment of University College at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Hilary Levinson, PhD, is a UTA co-coordinator and an assistant professor of focused inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Amber Pearson, PhD, is a UTA co-coordinator and an assistant professor of focused inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Michael K. Dooley, PhD, is an institutional research data analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Katy Hanggi, PhD, is chair of and an associate professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College at Virginia Commonwealth University.