Before moving to Tennessee, I worked as a high school college adviser in a small Virginia town, helping many low-income and first-generation students develop their college and career plans. On countless occasions, students visited my office with no understanding of how to apply to college and achieve their long-term goals. Several of my students had never heard of the SAT or ACT, were unfamiliar with college admission requirements, and were confused by the complexity of financial aid.

The process of postsecondary planning is extremely difficult for students and families, and my experience as a college adviser shed light on the impact of high-quality advising on student success.

Advising can change a student’s trajectory — students with access to advising services are 7 percentage points more likely to enroll in postsecondary education and 6.8 percentage points more likely to persist through their first year of college. SCORE’s new report Advising Students Toward Opportunity” delves deeply into the college and career advising landscape in Tennessee. Our team conducted a focus group with high school counselors and interviewed advising organizations from across the state to hear their perspective on college and career advising. Our research revealed the myriad ways that school counselors and advising organizations support students through the postsecondary planning process. However, despite their hard work, much more is needed to improve and expand high-quality advising.

School Counselors Need Greater Support

When I was a college adviser, my high school had four school counselors each with a caseload of more than 300 students. Every day they were pulled in multiple directions by students, parents, teachers, and administrators, leaving little time for them to meet individually with students to discuss college and career plans. Unfortunately, this is all too common in Tennessee. The state’s student-to-counselor ratio is 335:1, and in some districts counselors have caseloads of more than 500 students. Additionally, the counselors we spoke with expressed how large caseloads and numerous responsibilities pose barriers to high-quality college and career advising and limit their capacity to stay informed with the evolving postsecondary landscape.

College And Career Advising Should Start Early

One of the most common phrases I heard from my high school seniors was, “I wish I had known that freshman year.” Growing up, I was privileged to be in an educational environment where college field trips and Advanced Placement (AP) courses were the norm. However, not all students have these opportunities. For many students, postsecondary planning begins too late, often in their final year of high school. By then, students may have unintentionally limited their options through a lack of exposure to potential careers and early postsecondary opportunities (EPSO). College and career planning should begin in middle school, if not earlier, to shape and expand students’ options. All students, regardless of background, should have an educational experience that allows them to explore a wide array of college and career options.

A Need For Strong Coordination And Collaboration

SCORE’s interviews with advising organizations affirms the wealth of expertise and passion for postsecondary success in Tennessee. These organizations take varied approaches to their work, keeping in mind the unique needs of their students and communities. Nevertheless, they are often siloed within their own professional networks and have limited opportunities to collaborate with each other. Advising students toward long-term success is a collective responsibility of educators, higher education professionals, and advising organizations who each play an important role in a student’s pathway. Improving and expanding high-quality advising requires strong coordination and collaboration among these stakeholders to implement effective practices for student success.

In both my graduate education and my work at SCORE, I constantly reflect on my experience as a college adviser. The academic, financial, and personal barriers my students faced in achieving their postsecondary goals are a reality for thousands of students. Nevertheless, over the past year, I have met educators, policymakers, and researchers who are committed to access and equity in Tennessee — which gives me hope that we are on the right path toward student success.

Robin Yeh is a graduate fellow at SCORE.