With most jobs today requiring a college degree or career credential, it’s a given that we must increase the number of Tennesseans who complete education beyond high school. This is critical not just for the economic independence of our citizens but to build a strong economic base for business and the broader community.

Current college enrollment and completion trends reveal that getting students to and through college is no easy task. In looking for ways to address this challenge, we found that community-based efforts across Tennessee are taking on this hard work — and succeeding.

Community-Based College Success Programs: A Playbook For Data-Driven Student Support outlines success principles and highlights programs across Tennessee that are increasing enrollment in and completion of college and career training by using data to fine-tune student-focused programs. In the coming weeks, we will highlight these efforts with the expectation that other communities can learn from them and jump-start their own work in this area.

This week, we highlight, The Scholars Program of The Ayers Foundation, a program that recruits and trains college and career counselors to work in eight rural high schools in Tennessee and two high schools in Missouri. Counselors provide personalized advising to students and their families through the postsecondary planning process. After students graduate from high school, counselors continue to support them through the postsecondary enrollment process and beyond. Serving about 10,000 students annually, the program’s primary focus is data-driven advising that starts early and provides students with a seamless transition to postsecondary education.

Starting Early

To ensure that students and their families start postsecondary planning early, counselors host a Future Freshman Night for eighth-graders to establish connections, answer questions and collect contact information. Counselors continue to stay in touch with students during their first two years of high school through college fairs and workshops (on financial aid and other topics). Tenth-graders engage in college and career exploration by taking the YouScience assessment to measure individual aptitudes and interests, and juniors explore postsecondary options at a fall college fair and college summit. By the end of junior year, students are ready to start postsecondary planning with their counselor.

Using Data-Driven Support

Counselors create a file for each senior on their caseload and use the Salesforce data management platform to track students’ progress. During meetings, students discuss goals, look at admission requirements, and consider affordability of institutions they’re interested in attending. In addition to providing students periodic one-on one touch points throughout the fall semester, Ayers counselors coordinate trips to colleges and universities throughout Tennessee. New caseload data is input weekly and used to track trends across all 10 high schools and identify challenges.

Ensuring Strong Transitions

From finalizing matriculation decisions and completing critical enrollment tasks to submitting housing applications and navigating financial aid, counselors are available during the senior year and through the summer to ensure students enroll and attend college in the fall after school. By maintaining strong partnerships with local postsecondary institutions, Ayers Counselors are able to help students successfully transition onto their chosen campuses.

The results of all this hard work? Ayers reports average enrollment and completion rates of 85 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

Community-based efforts are the next frontier in college access and completion work. The goal of the Playbook is to help communities learn from experiences elsewhere and jump-start their own work using data to support student success.

Download the report.

Dr. Richard Bailey is SCORE’s director of strategic practice and data. SCORE’s communications manager, Diane Hughes, contributed to this post.