Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, students at Tennessee’s community and technical colleges earned a record number of credentials over the past year. In September, the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) announced that community colleges awarded 15,874 degrees and certificates during the 2019-20 academic year — a 44 percent increase from a decade ago. Plus Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) awarded more than 7,000 diplomas and technical certificates. This means nearly 23,000 credentials were awarded across the system over the past year — more than ever before. 

This fall, however, community colleges across the country are facing significant enrollment challenges. Nationwide, community college enrollment is down 7 percent compared to this time last year. In Tennessee, the number of community college students declined almost 12 percent — a drop of more than 10,000 students. 

Declines in Tennessee community college enrollment were seen across the board

  • Students enrolling in college for the first time immediately after high school dropped 19 percent 
  • Adults 25 and over declined 13 percent 
  • High school students dual-enrolled in college courses decreased 9 percent
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Many colleges have seen the most pronounced drops in enrollment among Black students. In Tennessee, enrollment by Black students at community colleges declined 19 percent, and enrollment by Black male students dropped by nearly 25 percent. Significant enrollment declines also occurred among students with less academic preparation. Enrollment by first-time students with ACT scores below 19 dropped 25 percent, down by more than 1,900 students.

Yet, Tennessee’s community colleges saw some gains. Initially, colleges expected dual enrollment by high school students to decline significantly this year, since many high schools opened the year with virtual instruction. But the number of dual enrollment students held steady or increased at four of the thirteen community colleges. First-year retention rates held steady this year, as 54 percent of students who began at community colleges last year returned this fall. According to preliminary data, TCATs saw a slight uptick in students registered this fall compared to last year.

Enrollment challenges at community colleges come in a year of unparalleled change for Tennessee’s college system. In March 2020, community and technical colleges across the state transformed their delivery of instruction for 140,000 students, shifting to online or remote learning for virtually all courses within the span of two weeks in order to protect the health of students, faculty, and staff.

The College System of Tennessee quickly adapted to this new environment thanks to significant investments in advising, online education, and high impact teaching practices over the past decade. These investments coincided with other reforms that have put student success and equity at the forefront of colleges’ work. 

As they face new challenges, Tennessee’s open-access community and technical colleges have sharpened their focus on ensuring equitable access and success for each student

  • In October, TBR hosted 500 faculty, students, and staff for We All Rise, the state’s largest conference focused on equity in higher education. People from colleges and universities across the state gathered virtually for workshops about teaching practices that promote equitable student success.
  • As part of We All Rise, the 27 TCATs launched their membership into Achieving the Dream (ATD), a national organization committed to helping close equity gaps. All 13 community colleges joined ATD between 2015 and 2019. With the addition of the TCATs, all 40 community and technical colleges in the College System of Tennessee are part of the ATD Network — one of only a few statewide systems whose entire membership is in ATD. Through this work, each college will develop action plans to promote student success and close equity gaps.
  • All 40 community and technical colleges are engaged in strategic enrollment management projects to develop long-term enrollment goals and implement deliberate strategies for recruitment and retention.

While colleges across the state still have more work to do, Tennessee’s community and technical colleges are prepared to meet these challenges and are taking action to ensure student access, promote student success, and close equity gaps.

The College System of Tennessee is the state’s largest public higher education system, with 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology and the online TN eCampus serving approximately 140,000 students. The system is governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents.