When sophomore Ethan Brooks first signed up for a new mentorship program for male University of South Florida students, he thought it might help him figure out how to navigate courses and get research opportunities.
But in only a few months, his relationship with his mentor, a senior also majoring in chemical engineering, has become an important college lifeline.
“It’s good to have someone to ask questions to,” Brooks said, saying he feels like he can reach out on anything, including note-taking strategies, how to deal with different professors or more basic life advice.
USF hopes such mentorship relationships can be one step to address a longstanding problem: the growing gap in college completion rates between male and female students.
Across the country, men are falling behind women not only in college enrollment but in college graduation rates, as well — and the gap has been slowly widening in recent decades.
National data shows that male students who enrolled in a four-year college in 2013 were 10 percentage points less likely to graduate within four years than female students. That trend was starker at USF. Men who enrolled at USF in 2013 were 18 percentage points less likely than women to graduate within four years.
A USF study of students who were admitted in the summer and fall from 2014 to 2016 also found that male students were 62 percent more likely to receive more than one D or F grade in college and 76 percent more likely to have a 2.0 or lower university GPA.
Paul Dosal, vice president for student success, said the gender disparity in graduation rates is the largest equity gap the university faces.
“The roots are deep and hard to dig out,” he said. “It’s part of a much larger problem in society.”
The school launched the mentorship pilot program last fall, inviting more than 4,000 male students who had started college in 2020 or 2021. More than 200 students wanted to participate. Dosal said USF wanted to design the program in a way that did not make people feel it was targeted at people who were struggling.
For Brooks, who started college during the pandemic, the mentorship program has given him a better way to feel connected. He said his freshman year of college at times felt lonely, with few on-campus gatherings. Even getting food in the dining halls was an isolating experience, with students sitting apart from each other.
“It just ended up being a bad time to be a human,” he said. “Everyone’s mental health was very low.”
The university noticed the need for students, particularly male students, to have better connections on campus, said Carmen Goldsmith, executive liaison to the vice president for Student Success and program manager for USF’s male student success initiative.
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“If we found a way to connect them to other students, professional mentors, they would have someone to go to,” Goldsmith said, saying she hopes to expand the program in future years.
USF partnered with an organization called Mentor Collective that matches mentees with mentors. Under the program, mentors and mentees must connect at least three times each month, whether through simple text messages or by meeting up in person.
Gender disparities in college graduation rates can begin as early as kindergarten, said William Cummings, a professor in the department of humanities and cultural studies and chairperson of the Status of Men Presidential Advisory Committee. Since the 1950s, boys have lagged behind girls in the K-12 system, from graduation rates to test scores, he said. Many studies have pointed to several theories, including cultural and biological factors.
But having peer group mentors could be helpful in closing that gap, Cummings said.
“We know the current generation is much more likely to listen to each other than a senior administrator at USF or a professor,” he said. “An 18- or 19-year (old) student on average is less likely to read my emails than listen to each other.”
Mahmoud Youssef, a senior majoring in finance and economics, has seven people he’s mentoring through the program.
He said he’s been surprised how many people need an outlet to talk.
Some of them come to him with questions about relationships or how to deal with parents. Some ask about adapting as an international student. Others have questions about school.
“I struggled a lot as an international student coming to America,” he said. “If I knew … it was that easy to just text a person who has already been through all of this and just tell him ‘What do I do?’ or ‘Can you help me with this?’ or just tell me who to ask, it would have made my life way, way easier.”