Half of Tennessee’s high school graduates don’t go to college

Nearly half of Tennessee high school students don’t go to college right after graduating — the lowest rate in 10 years.

“We’re going in the wrong direction very quickly,” University of Tennessee system president Randy Boyd said Monday. “I’d like to take it as a challenge, and it’s definitely the challenge of our time.”

Despite Tennessee’s financial aid programs like the Tennessee Promise and the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, which make college more affordable, only 52.8% of high school graduates in the class of 2021 enrolled in college after graduating. their degree.

University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd speaks at an event titled College Pipeline in East Tennessee: Where We Are, Where We're Going, and Policy Options, held Monday at the Howard H Baker Jr. Center in Knoxville.

This rate is down 4 percentage points from the previous year and 11 percentage points from 2017, according to the report of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Declines are not evenly distributed among the state or its populations, according to a new report. More than half of Tennessee’s 95 counties have a college attendance rate below 53%, and fewer Latino and black students have attended college in the past two years compared to white students.

The trend is not unique to Tennessee. the National Student Information Clearinghousea higher education research nonprofit, found that nearly 213,000 fewer students enrolled in college last fall compared to fall 2019.

But given Tennessee’s goal of increasing the number of working adults with a college degree or technical certification, the decline will hurt the development of the state’s workforce.

“In today’s economic reality, a high school diploma is not enough for long-term success,” Tennessee Higher Education Commission Executive Director Emily House said in a statement. statement. “All students can benefit from post-secondary education or training beyond high school to succeed and provide opportunities for advancement, which is why declining college attendance and disparities should be a call for action for Tennessee and our nation.”

Data and disparities

When the Tennessee Promise Scholarship debuted in 2015, post-graduation college enrollment peaked at 64%. The scholarship covered tuition and fees for students attending community colleges or technical schools, after financial aid began.

Between then and 2019, there were slight declines in the college education rate, but they remained above 61%.

But the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed that. Since the fall of 2019, the rate has fallen by 9 percentage points. Over the past 10 years, the rate has declined by 5 percentage points overall.

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Steven Gentile, director of policy at the Tennessee Commission on Higher Education, presented the data to stakeholders during a discussion hosted by UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.

“We are certainly in this period of uncertainty with regard to university access and trying to understand what has happened over the last few years and then project the next 10 to 15 years,” said Kind.

Steven Gentile, director of policy for the Tennessee Commission on Higher Education, speaks Monday on the UT campus.

Almost every county in Tennessee has fewer college-educated seniors attending college. Only eight counties in the state saw more graduates enroll in college or technical school than in 2017.

Some counties are suffering more than others. For example, only 33% of graduating seniors in Fayette County near Memphis attended college in the fall of 2021. Meanwhile, 81% of seniors in Williamson County enrolled. Knox County’s rate was 59%.

The gender gap has also continued to widen over the past two years. Nearly 53% of male high school graduates in Tennessee did not attend college in the fall.

And equity disparities are growing, as Latino graduates have seen the largest declines in college enrollment. Only 35% of graduating Latinos enrolled in college last fall. Since 2019, black graduates and Latino graduates have seen an 11% decline in enrollment.

Why are fewer students going to college?

While only half of Tennessee’s high school graduates actually attended college this fall, a large majority wanted to go to college. Last year, nearly 70% of high school graduates wanted to attend college or technical college, according to a survey of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

So why aren’t students signing up?

Celeste Carruthers, professor of labor economics at UT’s Haslam College of Business, said a few disruptions could deter students from pursuing higher education.

Associate Professor Dr. Celeste Carruthers speaks at ÒThe College Pipeline in East Tennessee: Where We Are, Where We're Going, and Policy OptionsÓ event at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Monday May 23, 2022.

“For many people and many students, college is like a very complicated daily game of Tetris, constantly changing and moving all the pieces to fit,” Carruthers said Monday. “The pandemic and the fallout that followed completely changed the game and let it crumble…at the same time.”

“Interruptions” include short-term changes to the college experience due to the pandemic. For example, students who had a negative experience with online learning in high school might take a break until in-person classes resume. Or someone who is immunocompromised (or who lives with someone who is) could take a year off to avoid health risks.

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Both of these interruptions are barriers fueled by the pandemic, but which will hopefully ease as the country manages COVID-19.

“Disruptions,” however, are pandemic-related changes with potential lasting effects, such as labor shortages.

“Currently there are more jobs than job seekers,” Carruthers said. “Local businesses recruit directly from high school.”

High school graduates have secured more new jobs, with higher hourly wages, over the past two years, Carruthers said, which could keep them from taking classes.

Time constraints, childcare and economic uncertainty also play a role.

What does this mean for Tennessee?

With fewer high school graduates enrolled in college, the state’s economic and labor needs may be in jeopardy.

As of 2019 — the latest data available — nearly 47% of working adults in Tennessee have a college degree or technical certification. That means the state is about 8% away from meeting its 2025 goal of getting just over half of working adults in the state with some kind of degree.

“When we started Drive to 55 … nine years ago, we were really worried about whether we would have the right workforce,” former Gov. Bill Haslam, who implemented Tennessee, said Monday. Promise.

This worry has not gone away. While higher salaries right out of high school might be persuasive for fresh graduates, both Haslam and Carruthers said college usually pays off.

Governor Bill Haslam during ÒThe College Pipeline in East Tennessee: Where We Are, Where We're Going, and Policy OptionsÓ event at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center in Knoxville, Tennessee on Monday, May 23, 2022.

“The jobs you can do above $45,000 without a degree or certificate are still very limited,” Haslam said. “And then the jobs we’re hiring in Tennessee increasingly require a higher skill set.”

And with declining birth rates, there will be fewer high school graduates going to college and entering the workforce. The number of high school graduates in Tennessee will peak by 2026 and then decline, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.

“Falling birth rates mean businesses are now spending more time than ever thinking, ‘How can I automate this?'” Haslam said. “I just think this trend is going to intensify.”

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