Roy Exum: 50% Of High School Grads Shun Colleges

Wednesday, May 25, 2022 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Randy Boyd, the president of the University of Tennessee, told a group of educators on Monday. “We are going in the wrong direction very fast. I would like to take it as a challenge, and this is definitely the challenge of our time.” No, he wasn’t talking about Alabama’s dominance over Tennessee in football but a topic far more daunting – over half of the state’s graduating high school seniors aren’t going to college.

It’s the lowest rate in the last 10 years, Becca Wright of the Knoxville News Sentinel wrote after a chilling report from the Tennessee Higher Education Committee and it is a nationwide trend. According to one study there were 213,000 fewer students enrolled in colleges last year than in 2019. The biggest reason: the COVID 19 pandemic and its aftermath.

Add other factors, like the job market begging for workers and now with inflation, gas prices soaring, and perhaps a recession threatening, colleges have priced themselves out of an average man’s reach. The state instituted the Tennessee Promise plan and HOPE scholarships, and UT is not increasing tuition this fall but last year less than 53 high school graduates in the state attended colleges or trade schools and the number is even worse for blacks and Hispanics.

What nobody in college administration talks about is the graduation rate at UT, this after six years and choking student loans. I’m told it is less than 60 percent while at UT-Chattanooga it is rumored to be just above 50 percent. Chattanooga State, where admission is free, has hundreds of students who must take remedial classes before they can pass the work and many drop out in exasperation. Wouldn’t you choose $15 per hour?

Yet as the Knoxville writer quotes: “But given Tennessee's goal of bringing up the number of working adults with a college degree or technical certification, the decline will hurt the state's workforce development.

“In the current economic reality, a high school diploma is not enough for long-term success,” Tennessee Higher Education Commission Executive Director Emily House said in a statement.

“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.”

Get this, again from the News Sentinel: “Nearly all counties in Tennessee have fewer graduating seniors attend college. Only eight counties in the state saw more graduates enroll in a college or technical school than in 2017.

Some counties are hurting more than others. For example, only 33 percent of graduating seniors in Fayette County near Memphis attended college in fall 2021. Meanwhile, 81 percent of Williamson County seniors enrolled. Knox County's rate was 59 percent.

The gender gap has continued to widen over the past two years as well. Nearly 53 percent of men graduating from high school in Tennessee didn't attend college in the fall.

And equity disparities are growing as Latino graduates saw the biggest declines in college enrollment. Only 35 percent of graduating Latinos enrolled in college last fall. Since 2019, both Black graduates and Latino graduates have seen a 11 percent drop in enrollment.  

It is believed that last year over 70 percent of high school seniors wanted to go to college. So why aren’t they enrolling? Celeste Carruthers, a labor economics professor at the UT's Haslam College of Business, said there are a few disruptions that may be deterring students from pursuing higher education at Monday’s conference.

“For many people, and many students, college is like a very complicated daily game of Tetris, constantly changing and moving all the pieces around to make them fit," Carruthers said in her presentation. "The pandemic, and the ensuing fallout, just completely changed the game and let it crash ... at the same time."

The "interruptions" include short-term changes to the college experience because of the pandemic. For example, students who had a negative experience with online learning in high school might take a break until classes are in-person again. Or someone who is immunocompromised (or living with someone who is) might take a gap year to avoid health risks.

With fewer high school graduates enrolling in college, the state's economic and workforce needs may be in danger.

As of 2019 - the latest data available - nearly 47 percent of working adults in Tennessee have a college degree or technical certification, according to the Knoxville newspaper. That means the state is about eight percent short of meeting its 2025 goal to get a little more than half of the state's working adults with some sort of degree.

"When we started Drive to 55 ... nine years ago, we were really worried about whether we would have the right workforce," former Governor Bill Haslam, who implemented the Tennessee Promise, said Monday. That worry hasn't gone away. While higher wages right out of high school might be persuasive for recent graduates, Haslam and Carruthers both said college typically does pay off.

“The jobs that you can make above $45,000 without a degree or certificate are still really limited," Haslam said. "And then the jobs that we're recruiting to Tennessee more and more are requiring a higher skill set."

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