Setting Students Up for Success: Steps to Create a College-going Culture

By Emily Wilcox, Student Readiness Program Manager at the Department of Education

One of my first projects at the department of education was traveling across Tennessee to interview students, teachers, school counselors, and administrators about college and career planning and advisement. Throughout my conversations with students, I heard familiar snippets of conversations laced with anxiety, uncertainty, and concern that I had heard five years prior in when I was a teacher in New Orleans.

During these interviews, students voiced that their teachers and schools focused too heavily on standardized test scores and left little time to talk about life after high school. Teachers also expressed a desire to integrate more advising and postsecondary planning into their classrooms but weren’t sure how. Across our interviews several headlines emerged:

  • Students want more time and support to explore college and career options and think about their futures.
  • Students are not aware of the full range of postsecondary options available to them, nor how they can qualify for federal and state-funded financial aid and scholarship programs.
  • Students struggle to see the connections between high school coursework and potential careers.
  • Teachers want to provide students the opportunity to explore college and career but feel unequipped to incorporate it into their academic content
  • Teachers and counselors look to administrators to establish the school’s culture around college and career readiness.

Given the early success of TN Promise, we were surprised to find that many high school students had a difficult time differentiating between different types of colleges (community college, 4-year, and technical) and different state sponsored college scholarship programs (TN Promise and HOPE). Although students have access to more information about college, they are still confused or unaware of all of their postsecondary options, especially Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology.

Throughout my teaching career I felt the internal struggle between wanting to make sure my students had a firm understanding of course material and preparing them for life outside of high school. I was overwhelmed by the amount of material I had to cover, coupled with the amount of remediation my students needed to be successful.

When I finally took a step back and incorporated conversations about life beyond high school and allowed my students to explore colleges and career opportunities, my classroom dynamic changed. My students began to see the connection between math content and life beyond high school. More importantly, they knew they had someone to talk to about their anxieties around what they were going to do next. As the culture in my classroom shifted to one focused on the real-life challenges my students were about to face, my students began to perform better on benchmark exams and missed less class time.

As educators, we want to have meaningful conversations with our students, and we want our students to be successful. A coordinated, well-designed, comprehensive approach to college and career advising can lead to a culture where students begin to see connections beyond the classroom and feel empowered to pursue pathways that they may not have imagined for themselves.

If you and your colleagues are ready to focus on strengthening the college-going culture in your schools, we encourage you to register for the Path of Choice Mini-Conference in Nashville on July 12 –13. Participants will receive coaching, tools, and support to design and implement a comprehensive approach to college and career readiness that empowers all members of the school community to advise, prepare, and mentor students for postsecondary success. All educators, school counselors, and school leaders are encouraged to attend. Registration for the Path of Choice Mini-Conference is open until June 15, and you can explore a tentative agenda here. Please email for additional information.