Tennessee Grapples With Deepening College Enrollment Declines

Officials called declines in the rate of high school graduates who immediately enrolled in college a "call to action."
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  • Tennessee's college-going rate in 2021 was down 4 percentage points compared to 2020.
  • The decline comes amid a nationwide enrollment drop accelerated by the pandemic.
  • Tennessee has aimed to boost enrollment by offering scholarships and resources to students.

Tennessee's annual report on college enrollment shows the number of high school graduates who immediately enrolled in college continued to decline in 2021.

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.

State officials described that decline as "a call to action."

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The college-going rate for 2021 varies widely across the state. In Williamson County, located just south of Nashville, the rate was more than 81%. In Fayette County, located east of Memphis, the rate was below 33%. The report notes that of the 95 counties in the state, 63 had a college-going rate under the statewide average of 52.8%.

The report also identified college-going rate gaps and disparities. Black students and Hispanic and Latino students said in a survey that "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.

More than 68% of all respondents to that survey said they wanted to eventually attend college.

"Even if students do not enroll seamlessly after high school (evidenced in the overall class of 2021's college-going rate), survey responses suggested students may aspire to return to postsecondary education in the future," the report reads.

A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that undergraduate enrollment dropped by 662,000 students, or by 4.7%, nationwide in spring 2022 compared to spring 2021, BestColleges previously reported. This marked the largest year-over-year decline since enrollment figures began to slip in 2012.

"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 press release that accompanied the release of the report on May 23. "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 state aims to increase the number of Tennesseeans ages 25-64 with college degrees to 55% by 2025 as part of its "Drive to 55" campaign — although the Tennessee Higher Education Commission report notes that students who graduated from high school in 2021 won't be 25 by the time that campaign wraps up. Still, the report states that students' college enrollment "is critical to Tennessee's long term attainment goals."

Part of that campaign, which kicked off in 2015, is the Tennessee Promise, a program that pays for two years of community college for new high school graduates.

In May, shortly before the enrollment report was released, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission for the first time voted to halt tuition increases at the state's public institutions for the 2022-2023 school year.