Nearly half of Tennessee's high school seniors aren't going to college or technical school right after they graduate — the lowest rate in the past 10 years.
"We're going in the wrong direction very fast," University of Tennessee System President Randy Boyd said Monday. "I'd like to take it as a challenge, and this is 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 from the class of 2021 enrolled in a college or technical college after they graduated.
That rate is down 4 percentage points from the year before and down 11 percentage points from 2017, according to the report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
The declines are not distributed equally across the state or its populations, according to a new report. More than half of Tennessee’s 95 counties have a college-going rate below 53%, and fewer Latino and Black students are going to college in the past two years compared to white students.
The trend is not unique to Tennessee. The National Student Clearinghouse, a higher education research nonprofit, found that nearly 213,000 fewer students enrolled in college last fall than in fall 2019.
But given Tennessee's goal of bringing up the number of working adults with a college degree or technical certification, the decline will hurt the state's workforce development.
“In the current 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. “All students can benefit from postsecondary education or training beyond high school to achieve success and provide opportunities for advancement, which is why the college-going rate decline and disparities should be a call to action for Tennessee and our nation.”
The 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 kicked in.
Between then and 2019, there were small declines in the college rate, but they stayed above 61%.
But the coronavirus pandemic shifted that dramatically. Since fall 2019, the rate has dropped 9 percentage points. Over the past 10 years, the rate declined 5 percentage points overall.
Steven Gentile, the chief policy officer at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, laid out the data for stakeholders during a discussion hosted by UT's Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.
"We are certainly in this period of uncertainty when it comes to college access and trying to figure out what's happened in the last few years and then projecting forward the next 10-15 years," Gentile said.
Nearly all counties in Tennessee have fewer graduating seniors attend college. Only eight counties in the state saw more graduates enroll in a college or technical school than in 2017.
Some counties are hurting more than others. For example, only 33% of graduating seniors in Fayette County near Memphis attended college in fall 2021. Meanwhile, 81% of Williamson County seniors enrolled. Knox County's rate was 59%.
The gender gap has continued to widen over the past two years as well. Nearly 53% of men graduating from high school in Tennessee didn't attend college in the fall.
And equity disparities are growing as Latino graduates saw the biggest declines in college enrollment. Only 35% of graduating Latinos enrolled in college last fall. Since 2019, both Black graduates and Latino graduates have seen a 11% drop 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 a technical college, according to a survey from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
So why aren't students enrolling?
Celeste Carruthers, a labor economics professor at the UT's Haslam College of Business, said there are a few disruptions that may be deterring students from pursuing higher education.
"For many people, and many students, college is like a very complicated daily game of Tetris, constantly changing and moving all the pieces around to make them fit," Carruthers said Monday. "The pandemic, and the ensuing fallout, just completely changed the game and let it crash ... at the same time."
The "interruptions" include short-term changes to the college experience because of the pandemic. For example, students who had a negative experience with online learning in high school might take a break until classes are in-person again. Or someone who is immunocompromised (or living with someone who is) might take a gap year to avoid health risks.
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Both of these interruptions are pandemic-fueled barriers, but will hopefully subside as the country manages COVID-19.
"Disruptions," however, are pandemic-related changes with potential lasting affects, such as the labor shortage.
"Currently there are more jobs than job seekers," Carruthers said. "Local companies are recruiting directly from high school."
High school graduates have been getting more new jobs, with higher hourly wages, over the last two years, according to Carruthers, which may be keeping them from taking classes.
Time constraints, child care and economic uncertainty also play into things.
What does this mean for Tennessee?
With fewer high school graduates enrolling in college, the state's economic and workforce needs may be in danger.
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% short of meeting its 2025 goal to get a little more than half of the state's working adults with some sort 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 the Tennessee Promise, said Monday.
That worry hasn't gone away. While higher wages right out of high school might be persuasive for recent graduates, Haslam and Carruthers both said college typically does pay off.
"The jobs that you can make above $45,000 without a degree or certificate are still really limited," Haslam said. "And then the jobs that we're recruiting to Tennessee more and more are requiring a higher skill set."
And with birth rates are declining, there will be fewer high school graduates to go to college and enter the workforce. The number of Tennessee high school graduates will peak by 2026 and will decline after that, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.
"The declining birth rates means that companies right now are spending more time than ever thinking, 'How can I automate this?'" Haslam said. "I just think that trend is going to escalate."
Becca Wright: Higher education reporter at Knox News
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Half of Tennessee's high school graduates aren't going to college