Pathways Counseling: Where We Are and Where We Could Go
Part One of the “Pathways Counseling: The New Essential Service” series presents both the function and incalculable value of a specialty college and career counselor, and makes the case for an expansion of this role across Tennessee schools. The piece’s central argument hinges upon a stark reality: not every high school student has access to guidance from adults equipped to provide education and/or career advisement (also referred to as pathways counseling) to a young person. In the transition from secondary school to college or career, too many students are flying solo.
The latest installment of this series takes a solutions-focused view of pathways counseling. Though our state lacks a comprehensive strategy for college-and-career advising – a plan that would extend these services to all Tennessee students – there do exist both state-led and community partner-organized advising programs working to fill these gaps in some communities. This piece does not seek to spotlight the totality of these programs, but will highlight several strategies for pathways counseling that should force us to wonder what could be – if even one of these models could find a home in every school in Tennessee.
State-Level Efforts to Close the Advising Gap
In 2016, under the leadership of the Haslam administration and with the recently-established Drive to 55 goal in mind, the state of Tennessee sought to address the lack of college and career counselors in our state’s public schools with the launch of Advise TN. The program, designed to “provide college advising services to up to 10,000 junior and senior students across Tennessee”, has placed pathways counselors in 33 high schools across Tennessee – including one in Davidson County. State-level work has also led to the creation of TN Achieves, a partnering organization to the TN Promise Scholarship that offers mentorship from community volunteers to local students as they prepare to enter postsecondary education. But mentorship is only offered to high school students who have already been approved for the TN Promise scholarship, and have therefore already taken steps toward attending college.
Although both the Advise TN and TN Achieves programs are capable of providing helpful guidance to those students who are selected to participate, obvious gaps remain. Who will provide intentional college-and-career advising to students not enrolled in the 33 Advise TN schools? If the guidance of a TN Achieves mentor is only provided to students who have already applied to a postsecondary institution, what happens to the student who has never believed that college could be an option for them? With the creation of these programs, the state of Tennessee has taken a noble first step; but students will inevitably fall through the cracks if college-and-career advising initiatives like these are not expanded to a wider student audience.
Locally Grown Approaches to Pathways Counseling
Across Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), pockets of high school students receive advising services from college and career counselors employed by local nonprofit organizations. Two of these organizations, Oasis College Connection and the Martha O’Bryan Center, are grantee partners of the Scarlett Family Foundation. Oasis College Connection staffs five full-time college counselors (called “Mentors”) at 11 MNPS high schools, and begins college-going conversations with students as early as the ninth grade. Oasis Mentors make it their job to meet students where they are – literally – whether in the cafeteria or the basketball court; and the program’s near-peer model allows students to form authentic relationships with well-trained advisors not much older than themselves.
The Martha O’Bryan Center takes a more embedded approach to pathways guidance through its Academic Student Unions (ASUs), dedicated spaces found in three MNPS high schools and one MNPS middle school, and offers college and career-related guidance as one option on a menu of student-centric services. Inside these Academic Student Unions, designed to be appealing, comfortable and welcoming, a student may walk in for a cooking class or homework help, but also leave with a TCAT course guide. In this advisement model, as in the Oasis College Connection model, access is key – advisors are steps away from students, and accessible to the entire student population at almost any time.
Though Oasis and Martha O’Bryan differ in their methods of operation, both have seen tremendous success on their mission to guide students to fulfilling lives post-high school. In order to serve as many students as possible with the resources available to them, both Oasis and Martha O’Bryan have adapted and innovated. As we consider how more Tennessee students could be served by college and career Counselors, both programs should be regarded as model innovators.
Other Innovators on the Pathways Counseling Landscape
There are lessons in pathways counseling innovation to be found all across the country; and one model in particular has reached new levels of importance in the COVID-19 era. Virtual college-and-career counseling, already a feature of dozens of student readiness programs nationwide, is more necessary today than ever before. College Advising Corps (CAC), established in 2005, has risen to prominence due in part to its success in bringing virtual college-specific counseling to communities – many rural – where such guidance is limited and college-going has not historically been a part of school culture. CAC’s virtual model employs eAdvisors who rely on a mix of video chat, email, phone calls and text messages to create and sustain student relationships. In a time of school closures and social distancing, leaders in Tennessee and across the nation should consider that a virtual approach to college-and-career counseling may be the solution to the challenge of offering seamless advisement through the pandemic.
To their credit, traditionally in-person counseling programs (like Oasis College Connection and Martha O’Bryan ASUs) have pivoted to a similar approach in recent months. At some point, we will be living in a post-COVID-19 world; and with virtual pathways counseling programs firmly in place, trained counselors may be equipped to reach students in numbers and from distances they could never have achieved through a traditional model.
Though an emphasis on well-trained, student-centered college and career counselors is necessary and important, it would be a mistake to imagine these counselors only as adult administrators. The 2018 documentary “Personal Statement” highlights the work of Peer College Counselors at a New York City high school – young people, themselves high school seniors, guiding their classmates on a path to post-secondary success. The students featured in “Personal Statement” are part of a CARA (College Access: Research and Action) peer-led college access and persistence program, a model that offers 70-80 hours of training and financial compensation to its Peer Leaders as they guide their fellow students through the challenges of college fit, readiness, persistence, and more. As Tennessee confronts the reality that many of our young people do not have access to any form of college and/or career counseling, it is worth considering how the power of mentorship and guidance could flow through the students themselves – another excellent example of innovation in the face of scarcity.
Yes, obstacles to increased counseling services do exist. A lack of funding, lack of classroom space, and lack of necessary time in the school day are perhaps the most oft-cited hurdles. These challenges are real and legitimate; but the state of Tennessee is already home to organizations and initiatives who, through out-of-the-box thinking, have found a way to serve where they are needed. Locally, and across the nation, solutions abound. When we are innovative, we get closer to our goal of bringing intentional, student-centric, college-and-career specific guidance to all TN students. Let’s decide, as a state, that all students are deserving of such guidance; and allow proven solutions to guide our course ahead.
Katie Hazelwood is a Program Officer at the Scarlett Family Foundation, where she champions the Foundation’s college scholarship program and “College and Career Ready” initiatives.