The Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) has released this year’s Tennessee Higher Education Fact Book, a comprehensive statistical report on Tennessee postsecondary access, efficiency, quality, and outcomes. While THEC produces this report annually, the 2021 Fact Book stands out from past reports in two ways: the scope and overall usability of the data has been expanded and many data points illustrate COVID-19’s impact on postsecondary education.

Expanded Scope And Useability

The 2021 Fact Book provides deeper insight into the demographic characteristics of postsecondary students and credential earners. Now, users can better distinguish student enrollment and completion by race/ethnicity and can more clearly compare graduation rates of male and female students and Pell-eligible and Pell-ineligible students. By disaggregating data this way, it is more possible to identify disparities and target resources effectively.

To complement the wide scope of data in the report and to promote data-informed decision making, THEC now includes introductory and summary narratives for each section of the report. Perhaps the most notable change, though, is a redesign of institution profiles. In past reports, the Fact Book offered a concise data summary for each community college and university through an institution profile. THEC has reimagined these profiles from static pages into a dynamic dashboard that makes it easier to explore information for Tennessee’s thirteen community colleges and nine public universities in greater detail.

Evidence Of COVID-19’s Impact

Throughout academic year 2019-20, COVID-19 pushed Tennessee postsecondary education into uncharted territory. Overall, the total number of undergraduates and the total number of full-time students enrolled in public postsecondary education declined from fall 2019 to fall 2020, with the most prominent declines found in the community college sector. Graduate and professional enrollment, however, increased across the state. In terms of college access, Tennessee’s college-going rate (the percentage of public high school graduates enrolling in postsecondary education in the summer or fall semester immediately after high school), declined nearly 5 percentage points compared to last year (from 61.8 percent to 56.9 percent).

Despite the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, several institutions maintained fairly high retention rates (with retention defined as the number of students who remained enrolled at any public higher education institution). Overall, the fall-to-fall retention rate for first-time freshmen increased slightly from 69.5 percent to 69.9 percent. Graduation rates continue to improve, too. Motlow State Community College demonstrated the greatest improvement in six-year graduation rates among community colleges (amounting to an increase of nearly 8 percentage points, from 40.8 percent to 48.5 percent). For universities, the University of Tennessee at Martin increased their six-year graduation rate by more than 7 percentage points, from 55.3 percent to 62.6 percent.

Future Fact Books

The Fact Book is a longstanding and dependable entry in THEC’s annual lineup of statistical reports and offers a holistic look at both the current context and recent history of Tennessee postsecondary education. Looking ahead, readers can expect a few more notable changes to the report, such as the integration of data for the University of Tennessee Southern, Tennessee’s newest public postsecondary institution. Beginning in 2022, the Fact Book will also encompass the annual Land Grant Report. With these changes, THEC will continue to make sure the Fact Book provides Tennessee postsecondary data that are useable, accessible, digestible, and meaningful for casual readers and policy advocates alike. 

Jacob Kamer is director of research and strategy at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.