Abstract: What Do Nonprofit Peer-Coaches Mean for Peer Co-Production in Public Institutions? (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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What Do Nonprofit Peer-Coaches Mean for Peer Co-Production in Public Institutions?

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Bridgette Davis, AM, Doctoral Candidate, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background/Purpose: Across safety-net programs in the United States, coaches have spread as an intervention to support disadvantaged service-users. This intervention, often staffed by near-peers or workers with lived experience, is increasingly observed in TANF offices where coaching is replacing traditional casework within agencies, in Medicaid expansion where navigators from community-based organizations outside the agency aid outreach and enrollment, but also in sectors as diverse as college-success. In the field supporting low-income, first-generation, and disadvantaged youth’ post-secondary educational attainment, peer-coaches—who share identities and lived experiences with the youth they serve—not only help students navigate the cumbersome bureaucracy of financial aid and higher education but also are intended to provide unique insight, empathy, and strategy into addressing the particular challenges their students face.

However, these nonprofit roles in which coaches attempt to mediate students’ higher education outcomes raise questions as to the assumed value of staff with lived experience as well as the extent to which peer-coaches affect the quality of engagement outcomes on college campuses (peer co-production). To what extent does lived experience matter when it is mobilized in service of peer co-production but where this work is located outside of colleges? Do students receive similar benefits from coaches who support them via nonprofit interventions as they would from college staff or administrators who share salient identities or lived experiences?

Methods: Data provided are from a year-long, multi-level, mixed-methods study in which purposive sampling was used to engage 30 average-achieving, low-income, African American, first-year college students from three high schools with college-success coaching programs. The author conducted four semi-structured interviews with each participant from high school graduation through the first year of college and completed more than 200 hours of field work with four college-success coaches.

Findings: Preliminary data suggest that peer-coaches working within college-success nonprofits from outside colleges may serve as an important compliment for some students but are also an inferior substitute to on-campus engagement and support for many others. Nonprofit college success coaches with lived experiences and shared identities improve student engagement and provide enhanced emotional and material support in navigating the transition to college. However, they could not replace unique and substantive contributions of administrators, faculty, and staff with lived experience and shared identities within universities who have access to insider knowledge and institutional resources. Finally, nonprofit coaches who overtly describe their role as a link for students to institutional power on campus appear to best support their students to improved outcomes.

Conclusions/Implications: This project provides initial insight into a provocative question: To what extent does effectiveness of peer-coaching depend on shared identities and lived experience versus institution-specific mobilization of power and resources? While peer-coaching may spread as a model for nonprofits as they seek equitable outcomes within colleges and universities, this study adds valuable insight that relationships with those who have particular institutional knowledge, agency, and power are critical in moving from college “access to success.” This has implications for how nonprofits conceptualize their work with under-represented students to improve outcomes in higher education.