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The Untapped Potential of Peer Support

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Changes are inevitable for higher education. With shrinking budgets, hiring freezes, and overall uncertainty, the resourcefulness of higher ed will be tested like never before as it attempts to solidify its role in the new economy. 

That said, being resourceful isn’t a new challenge in higher ed. Many campus departments have long had to learn how to “do more with less” and serve students with fewer resources than they would like. With great resilience, these areas continue to innovate amid new challenges by creating programs that truly make a difference.

Higher ed leaders must now consider new ideas and resources that empower their institutions to succeed in a new era. One area of opportunity is the untapped potential of peer support — a powerhouse that has the ability to continue making change in a changed time. This is only, however, if it’s administered properly to help today’s students thrive

By understanding the power of peer influence and exploring the untapped potential of peers to support one another, institutions can take student success to a whole new level.  Here are three areas, in particular, where there’s a lot of potential. 

The Potential of Peer Support to Improve Efficiency

Peer support programs are inherently efficient because they help two students at once — some students need jobs and others need support. For students providing help, meaningful campus employment opportunities position them firmly in the nexus of student success. These peer support roles enable the development of soft skills and NACE career competencies that transform them into awesome hires for future employers. They also earn income and feel the reward of helping other students succeed. At the same time, the students receiving support benefit from the guidance and encouragement of an experienced peer who understands their journey. They find a sense of belonging and an ability to relate that is different from what they might get with faculty or staff. 

Peer support roles also come at a far lower cost to campuses, making them a great financial decision. Especially during particularly lean times, paying peer helpers can alleviate the need to add more full-time staff with salary and benefits. To be clear, these student roles are not meant to replace faculty and staff or carry that kind of workload. Instead, peer helpers can act as an extension of professional staff or as representatives of a department, helping disseminate information and provide support to more students than would be possible without them. This helps different areas become more effective in reaching students and enables the power of peer-to-peer relationships to help foster student development and overall success. 

The Potential of Peer Support to Scale Flexibly

Part of what makes peer support programs an efficient choice for institutions is that they are an enduring, stable, and renewable resource. Even when enrollment declines, students will still need help. When built for the 21st century, peer support programs can scale down as needed, and just as easily scale back up as the student population grows again. When powered by the right technology, there are absolutely no bounds to the scalability of peer support programs. 

This offers a level of flexibility that institutions appreciate and find useful, especially given that professional roles in higher ed are rather fixed. With a fixed salary and benefits, there are very few workarounds for the budget lines of permanent positions. When adding more permanent roles is not possible, campuses can scale support for students by using available funds to tap into the potential of peer support programs. In both rich and lean times, peer support is a sustainable resource that is fruitful on both macro and micro levels. 

Furthermore peer support programs are not only scalable within a singular program, but also across the institution. In fact, those schools that recognize the value and utility of peer support programs tend to incorporate them into their campus-wide strategy for student success. Indeed, these programs can exist across both student and academic affairs to support the work of departments serving different needs. For more on this, check out the Knack Spotlight Series, which highlights the inspiring work of higher ed professionals across the country who are finding new ways to tap into the potential of peer support.

The Potential of Peer Support to Make a Meaningful Impact

If you’re unsure whether peer support really makes an impact, you need only listen to what students have to say. Whenever they share about their time in college, and the growth they experienced, many of their memories, relationships, and experiences tie back to different forms of peer support. 

For example, many students talk about their past resident assistant or orientation leader with great affection. These peer leaders help students find their way, while creating a sense of community that makes college feel like home. Students join fraternities and sororities to find brotherhood and sisterhood, yet another form of peer support. Honors college peer mentors put new students at ease by helping them navigate the program’s demands. Academically, students experience great relief by finding the right tutor to help them master the confidence and strategies needed to excel in a course that used to scare them. 

Whether it’s being impacted by a peer helper or serving in a peer helper role, peer support becomes what students talk about most enthusiastically when reflecting on their college career. Having a great RA or being an RA, for example, are two experiences that become deeply ingrained in that student’s college narrative. It isn’t just qualitative information and student stories that are worth noting, though. Data unequivocally shows that peer support makes an impact as well. 

In terms of academic performance, a robust suite of student services emphasizing peer support through learning communities is one of the major reasons why the University of California, Riverside (UCR) is successfully helping their low-income and first-generation students, who make up nearly 60 percent of their overall undergraduate population, excel academically. Data shows that 90 percent of UCR students persist after their freshman year and 68 percent of students graduate in six years, which is 26 points higher than the national average. Stanford Social Innovation Review details how UCR was able to remain accessible and inclusive, while maximizing growth and minimizing costs, to drive success for all students. Learning communities are just one of the many high-impact practices that involve peer support. 

Dr. Matthew Wawrzynski wrote about the increasing potential for impact of wellness peer support, in particular, noting dramatic increases in the number of peer educators who reported that they spoke with peers on campus about mental health concerns (21 percent in 2004 compared to 45 percent in 2016) and suicide prevention (27 percent to 40 percent). While this data comes from The National Peer Educator Study, which specifically focuses on health and wellness peer education, Dr. Wawrzynski argued that the learning outcomes are easily applicable to peer educators involved in other campus initiatives as well. The effectiveness and impact of this particular kind of peer support is also shown in this 2012 study

In part, peer support makes a difference because it helps foster community and reduce the psychological size of campus, no matter if the program resides in academic or student affairs. In peer tutoring, in particular, its power lies in its ability to defeat the curse of knowledge, challenge the lies about learning, and understand how Gen Z students learn best. What comes naturally to peer leaders cannot be easily replicated and must be given opportunities to shine.