'Education sherpas' help students navigate higher ed and beyond

Advocates are pushing for federal dollars to pay for these guides

Student advocates known as "education sherpas" are guiding at-risk students on the path to career success, Goldie Blumenstyk reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education

Education Sherpas serve as mentors for low-income and first-generation students navigating higher education and their careers. Advocates say such guides are increasingly important in an era of new educational models, including MOOCs and competency-based degrees, because those innovations wouldn't be equally accessible to all students otherwise.

"There's this romantic idea that all these options are available, and students are going to be able to navigate DIY education," says Harrison Keller, academic innovation coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin. However, he argues that "the students with more resources at their disposal and more of a safety net will have an easier time" accessing and using the new technologies and options. 

Two ways to help first-generation students navigate your institution's "hidden curriculum"

Nonprofit Prodigy gives young adults who are out of work the tools they need to get ahead. Apprentices at the organization's Prodigy Coffee shop train as baristas while also learning skills in financial literacy, career pathing, and communication. Each apprentice is also matched with a "mobility mentor" to help plan next steps.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation is working to develop a new publicly funded education system through its ReSchool Colorado project. Under the prospective model, students and families would be able to use existing means of federal funding to choose from a range of educational opportunities. For some students that could mean college, but for others that could mean taking part in programs offered by nontraditional learning providers, such as museums. Education sherpas would be part of the "learner advocate network" that students and families would use to evaluate different opportunities.

"We knew early in the design that the learner advocate was essential," says Colleen Broderick, the Donnell-Kay Foundation's chief learning designer.

Focus advising resources on the students who need you most

The education sherpa is also a key component of nonprofit PelotonU's model. The organization offers in-person coaching and advising to 50 students employed in the Austin area and enrolled in competency-based degree programs. Students average 29 years old and most of them have some credit, but did not finish college. The coaching that students receive from the education sherpas helped the program achieve an 87% persistence rate, according to PelotonU cofounder Hudson Baird.

Similarly, in Denver, startup Guild Education connects students with mentors who help them navigate opportunities for education and career advancement. Students can also take advantage of special tuition prices from the company's education partners.

The concept of education sherpas has been brought to the attention of the Education Department, with advocates pushing for a student-aid system in which students could use federal or state funding to pay for education sherpas. Richard DeMillo, executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has proposed new Education Savings Accounts that low-income students could use to fund advising if the services at their high schools are substandard. Colleges could also take steps to connect students to outside opportunities, he says.

Another way to shepherd students to success

While Education Department officials have not publicly commented on DeMillo's proposal, undersecretary Ted Mitchell noted in a written response that one study found that "institutions with high completion rates for Pell-eligible students are also institutions that have developed strong systems of student support" (Blumenstyk, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/16). 


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