I am the child who, when I told my parents that I was thinking of NOT going to college, wasn’t given an option, just support. I am a former first-generation, Pell grant, SEOG grant, every other grant and loan including mom-and-dad-helped-pay for it, college student. I am the teenager who, while in college had a network of caring faculty and staff surrounding me to support me both academically and emotionally to ensure that I would not fail, whose close network of friends encouraged me to run for student government president, covered for me during a two week recovery from surgery, and protected me from getting in too much trouble that time we all got caught partying on the roof of a residence hall. I was the lost college student who had a college mentor say, “You seem to like higher education. Why don’t you go to grad school for it? Here’s an application to Columbia University.”

I thought I pulled myself up from my own bootstraps.

I am the same young man who, by the time I graduated from college, because of the support I had from home, college, friends, faculty, staff, state government, and the United States of America, had the confidence to get on a plane for graduate school and go explore New York City – all by my lonesome, then work in a profession I love for the last 20 years.

I recently wrote an article discussing how no student succeeds in isolation and of the importance of having comprehensive student supports designed to prepare students for college and the future. Academic ability is obviously the best predictor of a student’s ability to succeed in college. And the state of Tennessee has invested a significant amount of time and resources to improving the academic components of education. However, considered in isolation, academics will not guarantee college access or success. “College Ready,” is a much broader and complicated topic.

Improving K12 academics does not address the fears and social challenges of the transition out of high school, often away from home, familiar neighborhoods, and cultures, and onto a college campus. Improving rigor without helping students develop a positive vision of the future they are working toward does not prepare them for their future. Focusing solely on test SCOREs does not stop the grumbling in the stomach of a malnourished middle school student or assist a family who is “off the grid.” Thinking of readiness only in terms of K12, school-based outcomes does not help the dislocated worker or veteran returning from oversees to access or succeed in higher education.

The challenges to college access and success are complex, but so are the opportunities. Our response must meet this complexity with a range of strategies focused on a more holistic understanding of what we mean when we say “college ready.” If our charge is truly college access and success, we must understand why and take action to support our young people, families, and institutions in addressing the non-academic variables so critical to student success.

At our recent Tennessee College Access and Success statewide conference, we worked to reflect on the definition of readiness in Tennessee. We came up with valuable indicators across the K12 pipeline that include managing multiple commitments effectively, managing personal health and risks, working in teams, fiscal literacy, resolving conflict, balancing social pressures with school and life, navigating a college campus, accepting and being aware of different cultures, and self-advocacy. We have begun our plan to implement these ideas across the state. If implemented well, our collective resources will ensure that all students in Tennessee have a genuine opportunity and the strategic support to achieve their dreams.