Investigating motivations of peer mentors in inclusive higher education programs for students with IDD

Vanderbilt University students surrounding two students with Down syndrome after graduation

Research conducted across five universities in Tennessee explored why college students become peer mentors, what they hope to gain from the experience, and how their expectations might encourage opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) both during and beyond their college programs.

The research was led by Erik Carter, Ph.D., professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member, and was conducted through the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance. Results were recently published in the article Motivations and Expectations of Peer Mentors Within Inclusive Higher Education Programs for Students With Intellectual Disability.

Erik Carter, Ph.D.

Erik Carter, Ph.D.

“The field of inclusive postsecondary education is still relatively young, and so we want to know how to most effectively—and naturally—support students with intellectual disability to access all aspects of the college experience,” said Carter. “Peer mentors are a prominent source of support in most of the 260+ colleges and universities that have inclusive higher education (IHE) programs. Studying which students become peer mentors, why they choose this involvement, what they expect to gain, and what expectations they have for students with intellectual disability can give us real insight into how we recruit, maintain, and enhance the experience of postsecondary education for everyone involved.”

Carter and his colleagues surveyed 250 peer mentors formally affiliated with one of the five IHE programs in Tennessee. The peer mentors were more likely to be undergraduates (98.4%) and female (81.2%). Most had not yet declared a major, but for those who had, a total of 78 different majors were represented. The most common declared majors were biological sciences, special education, business/marketing, education, medicine/health care, psychology, and social work.


“I wanted to help people and make a difference in peoples’ lives.”  ~ a peer mentor

When asked what drew them to the role of peer mentor, the majority of students cited alignment with personal values (93.6%), the likelihood the experience would be fun (91.2%), a desire to give back to the community (88.2%), and an interest in learning more about disabilities (77.4%) as motivational factors.


“I really expect to have a lot of fun on campus with my peer and share in our struggles together and rejoice in our triumphs.”  ~ a peer mentor

When asked how they thought they might personally or professionally benefit from the experience, the peer mentors most often identified developing new friendships (98.7%), greater appreciation of diversity (97.4%), and more comfortable interactions (96.9%). A smaller group of mentors also mentioned they expected to receive career clarity, personal impact, and shared experiences.

Expectations for Peers with IDD

“Research shows that expectations held by educators and family members can shape the outcomes young adults with IDD experience during the transition to adulthood.” ~ Erik Carter

Carter has done extensive work in relating opportunities and positive outcomes for young adults with IDD to expectations held by prominent people in their lives, such as parents and educators. His team wondered if the expectations of peers might also be impactful on success in college life.

“It seemed to us that peer expectations would matter greatly,” said Carter. “We were eager to explore the views of peers on whether students with IDD can successfully and fully participate in university classes, student organizations, career experiences, residential life, Greek life, and other corners of the campus, and to understand if the expectations held might impact how peers provide support.”

The study revealed that the expectations peer mentors held for their fellow college students with IDD were generally high when it came to on-campus experiences, such as developing a strong friendship network, participating in classes, holding an on-campus job or internship, and navigating around the campus independently. Expectations were more muted or mixed when peers were asked about post-graduation activities, such as living independently in the community without others.

Implications for Practice and Future Research

The findings from the study will be beneficial in providing IHE programs with a clearer picture of who their peer mentors are and why they are volunteering. The diversity of majors of current peer mentors suggests program staff can and should widen their recruitment efforts across departments. The variety of motivations reported for becoming a mentor also have implications for how the opportunity is framed to potential peer mentors when recruiting campus-wide.

Carter says the research also raises additional questions that need to be addressed by programs. For example, the majority of the peer mentors are female, but the majority of students with IDD enrolled in IHE programs are male.

“It may be prudent to consider avenues for recruiting more male peer mentors,” said Carter. “Where friendship formation is one goal of peer mentoring, ensuring students can also meet peers of the same sex may more closely mirror the friendship patterns of other college students.”

In terms of future directions for research, Carter says the data reported thus far are only a portion of data from a multiyear study. He has additional questions like whether the expectations and experiences of participating mentors differ from those of other college students on the same campuses who did not sign up, or whether motivations and expectations of peer mentors vary across campuses that differ in terms of their locale, culture, mission, and inclusivity as it relates to disability.

“There are likely a number of additional, unexplored factors that might influence whether and why college students choose to become involved as peer mentors,” said Carter. “For example, their availability or competing activities, their overall commitment to volunteerism, their understanding of what the peer mentor experience would entail, and who else they knew would be involved. The addition of a companion qualitative study— involving individual interviews or focus groups—would provide deeper insights into students’ pathways into this experience. There is much work to do, and thankfully we have five highly collaborative campuses in Tennessee motivated to learn more about how to best support our students.”

Courtney Taylor is VKC associate director of Communication and Dissemination

Universities with IHE program who took part in this study were Vanderbilt University, University of Memphis, University of Tennessee Knoxville, Union University, and Lipscomb University. All five universities are members of the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance

Pictured top of the page: Graduates of Next Steps at Vanderbilt with their Ambassadores—their peer mentors. Photo by Vanderbilt Unversity / Anne Rayner

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