When Jack first walked into my office during the fall of his senior year, he was unsure what his future would hold. He wasn’t an academic all-star, his family struggled to make ends meet, and no one had really pushed him to think about possibilities he might have after high school. Jack just knew that he wanted something different, even if he didn’t quite know what that meant or how to get there.

Like all the students I work with, I saw Jack’s potential for a bright future and told him that we would figure it out together as long as he trusted me and the process. Fast forward to May of that year. Jack graduated high school. Jack had a plan. Jack was going to college — the first person in his family to achieve this milestone.

Advise TN

Jack is just one of many students who receive advising services through Advise TN, a statewide college and career advising program administered by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC). Established in 2016, Advise TN currently has 30 advisors in 28 high schools across the state. The program began in high schools where the college-going rate was below the state average, with each advisor focused on increasing the number of students enrolling in high-quality training and education beyond high school.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the statewide college-going rate has declined 9 points when comparing the high school class of 2019 with the class of 2021, making the work of programs like Advise TN all the more critical. The program’s philosophy is simple: Placing one person in the building who is solely dedicated to individualized college and career advising will help move the needle on the number of students pursuing some type of postsecondary education or credential. Our advisors are trained professionals who use best practices and data monitoring to guide the work. In partnership and collaboration with school sites, they provide the resources and guidance that students need to be successful in life beyond high school.

Perhaps the most critical element of the program is how advisors build trusted relationships and partnerships with students through engaging conversations. They learn what their students are interested in and what they want for their futures. After building rapport, advisors are able to show students options that are available to them. Advisors do not tell students what they should do — advisors show students what they can do and reveal a world of choices.

Success And Impact

Jack’s story is not unique. Many students’ lives have been transformed because of the positive impact of an Advise TN college advisor.

Located in an economically distressed and rural area in the northwest corner of the state, Lake County High School has defied the odds. At a time when the rest of the state is trending downward, Lake County demonstrated a 27.4 percentage point increase in college-going over five years. Lake County High School staff and the Advise TN advisor, Tonya McKellar, have invested time and energy into meaningful interactions with students, and they are seeing the return on that investment.

Lake County is one of many schools in the country seeing success through high-impact advising practices. Every day across the state, high school seniors are meeting with Advise TN college advisors and making plans that will affect the rest of their lives. The impact made through these daily discussions begs the question: What if college really is only a few meaningful and purposeful conversations away from becoming a reality for each of our students?

Student’s name has been changed for privacy.

Sarah Ligas is an Advise TN regional coordinator at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.