The Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) released the latest trends in college-going last week, and the findings offer a positive outlook on Tennessee’s college-going rate.

Tennessee’s college-going rate for the graduating Class of 2022 — that’s the students who enrolled in a technical college, community college, or university straight out of high school — saw a 1.5 percentage point increase this year. This follows a declining enrollment trend over the past five years. This is especially energizing news because this increase is the largest single-year increase in Tennessee’s college-going rate since the Tennessee Promise Scholarship was implemented in 2015.

And while modest, this represents a promising shift in Tennessee’s college-going rate data. 
A deeper dive into the data by race/ethnicity and institutional type reveals positive trends for Tennessee students. Overall, the college-going rate for the Class of 2022 is up across all races and genders. When disaggregated by race/ethnicity, college-going rates for Black students and Hispanic students are up 2.9 points and 2.3 points, respectively. These increases reflect a shrinking enrollment gap between White students and students of color. The gaps in college-going between White students and students of color remain, with Black and Hispanic college-going rates being 12 and 21 points lower than White students. However, these gaps did narrow from 2021 to 2022 for both student groups, a positive improvement for these historically underserved student groups. 

Moving forward, it is crucial that Tennessee work to remove barriers to college going.  
It is important to note that overall, just a little over half of Tennessee high school students enroll in postsecondary education immediately following graduation. For students of color, the number is even less with only 46.9 percent and 37.3 percent of Black and Hispanic students enrolling.

One barrier that could affect enrollment is a student’s desire or need to earn wages immediately after high school graduation. Looking at wages earned immediately following high school graduation (according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development), THEC found that students earning more than $15,000 a year had a lower college-going rate. THEC attributes this to students deciding to enter the labor force when high entry-level wages are available for groups with only a high school diploma.   

Shrinking enrollment has most notably impacted the state’s community colleges, which is a noteworthy concern as these institutions can offer Tennesseans a great deal of upward economic mobility at a lower price point. 

And while it’s clear we have turned a corner, we must all work together to continue building the college-going momentum in Tennessee.  
The coming years represent an opportunity for Tennessee, its citizens, and workforce to address problems and emerge stronger after the pandemic than we were prior. To meaningfully impact the college-going rate over the next few years, Tennessee should prioritize the following:

  • Provide high-quality college and career advising to students in both high school and postsecondary education so that students are aware of the financial aid, programs of study, and other opportunities available to them when they graduate high school.  
  • Expand access to early postsecondary opportunities (EPSOs), like Dual Enrollment, in high school to build momentum and expose students to college opportunities while still in high school. Tennessee should also strengthen the state’s Ready Graduate measure to hold high schools accountable to increasing the college-going rate. 
  • Revisit postsecondary funding in Tennessee, including strengthening financial aid opportunities to support students to attend and reimagining the outcomes-based funding formula. 
  • Reimagine the state’s community college programming to include an increased focus statewide in workforce-informed programs. 
  • Use the state’s longitudinal data system to increasingly evaluate and inform state leaders on how to strengthen the connections between K-12, postsecondary, and work as it relates to college going.
  • Make National Student Clearinghouse data available to all K-12 districts to help them better understand students’ postsecondary pathways and progress toward degrees.

The college-going rate increase for the class of 2022 reflects the hard work of K-12 and higher education leaders and advisers in supporting students to take advantage of postsecondary opportunities as Tennessee recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr. Jamia Stokes is SCORE’s senior director of postsecondary pathways. Zachary Hyder is a graduate fellow at SCORE.