Thirty specially trained college advisers are fanning out into high schools across Tennessee next week as part of the latest high-profile move by Gov. Bill Haslam's administration to encourage more young people to pursue higher education.
The $2.4 million program, known as Advise TN, will embed each adviser in a high school that has an average college-going rate that falls below the three-year state average of 58.8 percent. Troy Grant of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission estimated more than 14,000 students could be affected by the program during its three-year pilot phase.
Advisers met with participating school leaders on Wednesday, a week before they begin their work on campus. At the meeting, held on Columbia State Community College's Franklin campus, the group of about 100 sketched out their short- and long-term goals for the program.
High school principals from across the state said they were thrilled to be participating in Advise TN, which was included in Haslam's latest state budget. Principals from Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville schools said the full-time college advisers would be a much-needed addition to their teams of school counselors, who juggle college issues along with several other time-consuming responsibilities.
"There are a lot of things that happen in a high school — to have a person that's really that one, college (resource) on a daily basis is important," said Nathan Langlois, principal at Austin-East Magnet High School in Knoxville. "That's what we need. We need an expert."
Each participating school will get to collaborate with their embedded advisers to decide on priorities that are specific to the school's needs. For Overton High School in Memphis, one of those priorities will be finding ways to help students — and their parents — confront practical barriers to college.
Overton Principal Greg Billings said some of his students might be able to get into college but don't have a car or a convenient bus route to get them to campus.
"It's not always that they don't have the grades," Billings said. "A lot of times it boils down to the basic necessities."
All of the college advisers in Advise TN will work year-round, meaning they will be available to help students tackle those and other problems during an especially perilous time in the college process: summer. During the meeting, Susan Kessler, the principal at Hunters Lane High School in Nashville, said some of her students leave high school planning to attend college and then decide to drop out over the summer, when most school counselors aren't working.
"There's a lot of stuff that gets in the way between getting accepted and going to college," Kessler said. "One barrier ends up being the last straw."
That phenomenon, known as "summer melt," has been identified by experts as a leading challenge in the fight to boost college enrollment. Kessler said the Advise TN team could be an antidote.
"This is going to help keep those doors open so more of my kids get to college," she said.
The advisers see their yearlong schedules as an opportunity to establish deeper relationships with students and families. Michelle Willis, an adviser who will be embedded at Northwest High School in Clarksville, said that was her favorite part of the program.
"We are finally the open door and we're always going to be open," Willis said. "The availability factor is what we're providing that maybe hasn't been there before."
Officials overseeing Advise TN say they can't predict the ultimate impact of the program because it's among the first of its kind in the country. But the leader of a local higher education advocacy group said it seemed like "a good and interesting approach" to a persistent problem.
"The case loads for the guidance counselors is pretty heavy," said Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee. "This is a really good way for the state to bring some new information and capacity for the high schools to begin working with students on college and career" preparation.
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.
Some participating schools
Cheatham County: Cheatham County Central High School
Davidson County: Hunters Lane High School
Dickson County: Dickson County High School
Knox County: Fulton High School, Austin-East Magnet High School
Montgomery County: Kenwood High School, Northwest High School
Rutherford County: La Vergne High School
Shelby County: Overton High School