This Memphis Community College Is Tackling Tennessee’s Falling College-Going Rates

Southwest Tennessee Community College wants to create a seamless pathway from high school to higher education.
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Bennett Leckrone is a news writer for BestColleges. Before joining BestColleges, Leckrone reported on state politics with the nonprofit news outlet Maryland Matters as a Report for America fellow. He previously interned for The Chronicle of Higher Ed...
Published on August 16, 2022
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  • Tennessee's college-going rate in 2021 was down 4 percentage points compared to 2020.
  • Black students were found to have a lower college-going rate than their white peers.
  • Southwest Tennessee Community College is tackling enrollment declines and achievement gaps with dual enrollment programs and wraparound services.

When the Tennessee Higher Education Commission released its annual report on college enrollment earlier this summer, officials called the state's declining college-going rate "a call to action."

Southwest Tennessee Community College is answering that call by first acknowledging the realities students face in 2022, President Tracy D. Hall told BestColleges.

"Part of our mission is making sure that we deal with real-life situations that our students face," she said.

The college is ramping up its work to reach potential students while they're still in high school and doubling down on dual enrollment programs, Hall said. Then, it's providing students with wraparound services they need to succeed once enrolled, such as free laptops, subsidized bus passes, and mental health services.

With campuses across the Memphis metropolitan area, Southwest Tennessee Community College is uniquely positioned to appeal to high school students. One of its campuses includes a public high school run by Shelby County.

Medical District High School opened at the community college's downtown Memphis campus last year. Students at that school pursue an associate degree and a high school diploma simultaneously.

"While they are in high school, we have to focus on trying to help them to have dual enrollment courses," Hall said. "If they decide not to continue their education, they at least have some type of postsecondary credential that will assist them in gaining employment."

The latest report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission found that the state's college-going rate — or rate of high school graduates who enroll in postsecondary education immediately after high school — was 52.8% for the class of 2021. That's down 4 percentage points when compared to the class of 2020, when the figure was 56.8%. The rate of students immediately enrolling in college after high school was above 60% statewide from 2015-2019 before dipping after the onset of the pandemic.

But that report also found that more than 68% of students surveyed said they wanted to attend college eventually.

“Part of our mission is making sure that we deal with real-life situations that our students face”
Tracy D. Hall, Southwest Tennessee Community College President

When that report was released in June, Samantha Gutter, chief access and outreach officer at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told BestColleges that the state's Tennessee Promise program pays for two years of community college for new high school graduates. That program is part of a larger "Drive to 55" campaign that aims to increase the number of Tennesseans ages 25-64 with college degrees to 55% by 2025.

Those programs, as well as programs aimed at helping adult learners return to college, give the state a "strong foundation" to build on in boosting higher education going forward, Gutter said.

When paired with Southwest Tennessee Community College's dual enrollment efforts, statewide scholarship and gap-closing programs such as Tennessee Promise are helping to ensure students have the resources they need to head to college after high school.

"If you don't show students a path, sometimes they can't see it themselves, and they make other decisions. And that impacts the college-going rate," Hall said.

The recent Tennessee Higher Education Commission report also found that Black students and Hispanic and Latino students said "the pandemic changed their plans much more frequently" than white students or students in the report's "other" category, and they also had a lower college-going rate.

Southwest Tennessee Community College is recognized as a predominantly Black institution (PBI), and Hall said the school is likewise uniquely positioned to address the college-going rate divide outlined in the Tennessee Higher Education Commission report.

She said the college is particularly focused on cutting back on achievement gaps in the classroom and providing wraparound support services outside of the classroom.

"We just address these issues head on," Hall said. "We don't shrink these discussions about race and about barriers that impact our students. We address them in the classroom. We address them outside of the classroom with those wraparound support services."