In today’s job market, a postsecondary credential is critical to achieving success in the workforce. With nearly half of Tennessee high school graduates not going to college, it’s time to join forces to form a plan of action and implement core strategies to support students.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s (THEC) College Going and the Class of 2021 report examines college enrollment behaviors of Tennessee public high school graduates, and finds college going has been on the decline, with the current rate for the class of 2021 dropping to 52.8 percent. Here’s a look at some data points and priority areas to inform our strategy in turning around this trend.

College-Going Gaps Between Student Groups Widen

For the first time, this report captures college-going rates by race, gender, and race-gender pairs, making it easier to identify areas where interventions can make a difference. Female students are more likely to enroll in college after high school than males. White high school graduates are more likely to enroll than their Black and Hispanic peers, a trend that has worsened over time. The gap between White and Black college-going rates widened by over 6 percentage points in the last five years, and the gap between White and Hispanic/Latino grew by nearly 4 percentage points in the same period.

Source: THEC’s College Going and the Class of 2021 Report
Note: The “Other” race category includes American Indian or Native Alaskan, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and two or more races.

Localized Data = Better Informed Strategies

The report also provides college-going data by county over time, allowing communities to better understand the local college-going landscape for high school graduates. New this year, readers can download high-school-level data to further localize trends, which can encourage meaningful discussion among local education stakeholders and empower them to identify strategies to support students. This data can also bring together local K-12 and higher education leaders as partners to strengthen the college-going pipeline.

Students Intend To Go To College But Lack Financial Aid Awareness

As we continue to monitor college-going data, it’s also crucial to hear directly from students. The 2021 High School Senior Opinion Survey administered by THEC asked students about their plans after graduation and about state financial aid programs available to them. An overwhelming majority of students surveyed, 79.8 percent, said they intend to earn some level of postsecondary credential in their lifetime. Tennessee Promise showed high levels of familiarity among the Class of 2021, but other state programs like the HOPE Scholarship, Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant, and Tennessee Student Assistance Award (TSAA) were less familiar to them.

Historic investments in higher education have ensured the cost of tuition will not increase at Tennessee’s public colleges and universities in the 2022-2023 school year. Moreover, recent legislative action has increased the award amounts for the HOPE scholarship, and more funding has been directed toward TSAA. Going to college may be more affordable than students think, and we need to spread that message wide.

Moving Forward

Seamless enrollment in postsecondary education right after high school is critical to increasing the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential. To improve educational attainment and foster prosperity, we need to support students in the decision-making process earlier in high school and re-engage those in the workforce without a credential for long-term success.

Tennessee has risen to meet challenges in higher education in the past and continues to do so today. THEC has launched a stakeholder engagement process to outline a plan of action with core strategies to support students, including advising initiatives, early postsecondary opportunities, wraparound supports, and summer bridge programs to make sure all students reap the benefits that a postsecondary credential has to offer in Tennessee.

To share ideas and potential solutions to address this challenge, visit the CollegeforTN resource page.

Paige Elliott is a research and strategy analyst at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.