Tennessee’s College-Going Rate Dropped 11 Percent Since 2017

by Jon Styf


The college-going rate for Tennessee students after high school graduation has dropped from 63.8% for the Class of 2017 to 52.8% for the Class of 2021, according to a report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

There has been a 9 percentage point drop since the Class of 2019, which matches a national trend where there was a 9.2% decline in freshman college enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2021.

“In the current economic reality, a high school diploma is not enough for long-term success,” said THEC Executive Director Emily House, “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.”

In response to the report, THEC is working on putting together work groups to identify recommendations to improve the rate.

“The sharp decline in the overall college-going rate and the observed disparities for traditionally underserved student populations demands a renewed focus on improving access to college and reengaging Tennesseans with education opportunities,” the report said.

The report showed survey results that 68.7% of students desired to one day receive further education and credentials.

“The declining college-going rate numbers released (this week) show that the COVID-19 pandemic and a changing economy have had a deeply concerning impact on students and their families, particularly for students of color,” said David Mansouri, President and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. “We have a lot to be proud of as a state in ensuring students are prepared for, can access and enroll in college, but we have much more work to do.”

The college-going rate was higher for female students (59%) than male (46.5%) and higher for white students (57.6%) than Hispanic/Latino (35%) or Black students (44%).

Tennessee’s college-going rate reached a high of 64.4% in 2015, a jump from 58.6% in 2014, before dropping off from 61.8% in 2019.

The report also showed a wide range of college-going rates across counties with a high of 81% in Williamson County and a low of 32.6% in Fayette County.

While many of the state’s counties saw a decline in college-going rate since 2017, Williamson County has seen a 13 percentage point increase over that span. Lake County in northeast Tennessee saw a 27 percentage point increase since 2017 to reach a 73% college-going rate while Decatur (76%), Perry (75%) and Pickett (74%) counties are the only other counties with higher than a 65% college-going rate.

“SCORE stands ready to join with state and local partners in making a renewed postsecondary commitment; analyzing data to elevate leaders, districts, nonprofits, and institutions that are leading the way; and advancing bold new policies and practices that will help more students transition to college and help them complete. It’s time to act together and to act with urgency,” Mansouri said.

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Jon Styf is an award-winning editor and reporter who has worked in Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan in local newsrooms over the past 20 years, working for The Center Square, Shaw Media, Hearst and several other companies.
Photo “University of Tennessee” by Nightryder84. CC BY-SA 3.0.

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4 Thoughts to “Tennessee’s College-Going Rate Dropped 11 Percent Since 2017”

  1. Randy

    Academics sounding the alarm that the gravy train needs more gravy. Tennessee made the first two years of college free and the number of students attending went down? Now they want to establish more administration (Work Groups) to figure out how to spend more tax dollars to shore up failed education policy. Perhaps if they spent less time trying to convince people they know whats best for everyone while lining their pockets and more time actually educating children this race to the bottom public education policy would change for the better. Each year we spend more and more and the outcomes get worse and worse. I think its time for a change in Academic Leadership.

  2. Cannoneer2

    Sell insurance. Go into athletics, and after you are washed up, gain power by entering politics. You will do much better via either of those paths than by gettin’ more book learnin’.

  3. mikey whipwreck

    college has become less and less of a value every year for like 30 years.

    no surprise people just end up looking for alternatives.

    100k to have to sit through X number of ‘studies’ classes and other claptrap to graduate? no thanks

  4. 83ragtop50

    Guess some of the high school graduates and their parents have figured out that the colleges and universities are charging tuitions and fees that are extremely overpriced while not providing a strong education. Also some have finally figured out that getting a college diploma is not the panacea that it is touted to be. One still has to get out of Momma’s basement to get a decent job. What a horrible thought!!!