By Jenny Mills
Any caring adult has the power to be a transformative mentor in the life of a young person. Scholars Arthur Levine and Jana Nidiffer examined low-income students who were succeeding in college in their book Beating the Odds and discovered that all of them were successful because they had a mentor – whether that person was a parent, a teacher, or just someone who believed in them. Levine & Nidiffer hypothesized that the only requirements to be a mentor were to impart hope, enhance confidence, believe in the importance of education, and to connect to college. Their research from 1996 has been supported by more recent studies that explore the impact near-peer mentoring programs like the College Mentor Corps are having in communities around the country.
College counseling is a profession. Understanding the ins and outs of college terminology and financial aid processes is specialized, skilled knowledge, as is understanding the nuances of college choice and how to guide a young person to an institution that will be a good fit for them socially, academically, and financially. Parents who are willing to pay consultants by the hour and private high schools who hire college counselors (often former college admissions officers) to help shepherd their children through the college admissions process realized this long ago. The need for this type of specialized coaching has been bolstered by recent research detailing the phenomenon of undermatching, in which low-income or minority students choose to attend less selective institutions, even when they have the academic profile to attend highly selective colleges and universities. Undermatching leads to lower retention rates, lower wages, lower job satisfaction, and lower graduate school attendance. Trained college counseling is sorely lacking in many high schools but particularly those serving high populations of first-generation/low-income students.
As Tennessee embraces the Common Core State Standards and focuses on college and career readiness, providing high-quality professional training to help students make college and career a reality is a necessary support. We know in today’s economy, being ready for a career means obtaining a postsecondary credential, whether that credential is a technical certification or a bachelor’s degree. We also know there is a shortage of high quality professional learning opportunities on college counseling – of all masters-level school counseling programs in the country, only about 10 percent even offer credited courses on college counseling, and many of these are electives.
The Network is committed to increasing the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential and creating a college-going culture across the state, and we recognize the clear need for professional development on college counseling. In 2012, Jim and Janet Ayers founded the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation at Lipscomb University with a vision to become the premier clearinghouse and resource for professional learning opportunities to improve student outcomes. Jim and Janet’s visionary leadership in the field of college access since 1999 and Janet’s role as a TCASN board member made the Ayers Institute a natural fit for the Network in developing the type of professional development opportunities that will help increase college attainment rates.
The Network and the Ayers Institute at Lipscomb University have worked to develop the learning outcomes and content for the College Access Project for over a year. To begin the process, we jointly surveyed over 200 TCASN members – practitioners in the field – to help us identify what content was critical to include. From there, we convened a committee of expert college access practitioners from urban, suburban, and rural communities, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, to further shape the learning objectives. Much of the content is from college access and success experts in Tennessee and across the country; the course has truly been a collaborative and member-driven effort.
The College Access Project consists of five strands, each eight weeks long. Participants can take strands as they choose and in any order. Individuals who take all five strands earn a designation as a college access coach from the Ayers Institute. Each strand is offered entirely online with a small cohort of less than 24 students and an experienced facilitator to guide discussion and provide feedback to participants. At the conclusion of each strand, participants submit a portfolio of items they can turn around and use in their work. For example, in the strand Creating a College-Going Culture, participants will give serious thought to assessing where their school and community stands with their college access efforts right now and how they can strategically leverage partnerships and resources to reach the next level. In the strand Paying for College, participants examine college financial aid websites and sample financial aid award letters to strengthen their ability to guide young people as they consider investing in education.
After dedicating much time to developing this curriculum, recording dozens of videos highlighting content experts, and piloting our work with a few practitioners around the state, we are thrilled to offer our first full strands publically in January. The Tennessee College Access and Success Network is also excited to invest further funds to provide professional development grants that will allow leaders who work with low-income students to take the course at a reduced cost. “This partnership between TCASN and the Ayers Institute will train hundreds of practitioners in how to best support students in attaining postsecondary education. Our training is groundbreaking work that not only further professionalizes college counseling, but it highlights best practice in the field,” said Dr. Candice McQueen, Dean of the College of Education at Lipscomb University and Executive Director of the Ayers Institute. We believe this course is one of the first of its kind in the nation – the depth of information, experienced facilitation, and collaborative learning model are unlike most professional development opportunities in the area of college access and success. This course and the investment by TCASN and the Ayers Institute at Lipscomb University help us power progress and continue to improve educational outcomes for all Tennesseans.