College and trade school enrollment hits five-year low for Shelby County


Half of Shelby County high school graduates do not enroll in college or trade school after graduation, reflecting a declining statewide trend which particularly affected Shelby’s first two promotions of the pandemic.

Statewide, however, enrollment trends don’t reflect what high school graduates actually want to do, according to findings in a new report from the Tennessee Commission on Higher Education: Although only 53% of 2021 high school graduates in the state have enrolled in college or trade school, about 70% intended to enroll, according to survey data.

High school graduation rates in Shelby County have been slightly impacted during the pandemic, but have generally tended to stagnate rather than decline.

Scenes from the 2019 Germantown High School Graduation at Bellevue Baptist Church on Saturday, May 18, 2019.

The report also comes as Southwest Tennessee Community College has seen a drop in enrollment and the University of Memphis has begun moving out-of-state students in its enrollment strategy.

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Shelby County graduates mirrored statewide averages almost identically for graduating classes in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Post-secondary enrollment for the class of 2020 fell much faster than the state average, and the trend has continued downward for 2021 graduates rather than recovering.

In total, Shelby County’s enrollment rate fell 23% from 2017 to 2021.

The decline has left Tennessee with the lowest post-secondary enrollment rate in the past 10 years, despite Tennessee financial aid programs like the Tennessee Promise and the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, which make college more affordable.

And as fewer graduates enrolled in college or trade school, the gap widened between black and Latino students and their white peers. According to the report, fewer non-white graduates are enrolling, especially when comparing graduating classes before COVID-19 and those who graduated during the pandemic.

“We’re going in the wrong direction very quickly,” University of Tennessee system president Randy Boyd said Monday. “I’d like to take it as a challenge, and it’s definitely the challenge of our time.”

Manassas High School graduates and their families gather at the Orpheum Sunday afternoon to celebrate the graduation of 117 seniors.

Memphis colleges feel dip in enrollment

The trend is not unique to Tennessee. The National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit higher education research organization, found that nearly 213,000 fewer students were enrolled in college last fall than in fall 2019. University of Memphis, where the majority of undergraduate students are from Shelby County, data shows a slight decline in Shelby County students since fall 2019.

Survey responses in the THEC report show that 80% of high school graduates intend to earn some type of degree in their lifetime, from a technical certification to a doctorate. More than 70% said a college education “was ‘very important’ or ‘important’ to finding a well-paying, stable career,” the report’s authors wrote.

“This suggests that students do not lack motivation to attend college or lack recognition of the value of college, but that other factors may impact their behavior in college,” they wrote. .

Manassas High School graduates and their families gather at the Orpheum Sunday afternoon to celebrate the graduation of 117 seniors.

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In addition to students’ desires for their careers, THEC recognized that declining enrollment will also hurt the state’s workforce development goals.

“In today’s 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 post-secondary education or training beyond high school to succeed and provide opportunities for advancement, which is why declining college attendance and disparities should be a call for action for Tennessee and our nation.”

Why are fewer students going to college?

Among the enrollment declines are geographic, gender and racial disparities, the report said.

Almost every county in Tennessee has fewer college-educated seniors attending college. Only eight counties in the state saw more graduates enroll in college or technical school than in 2017.

The gender gap has also continued to widen over the past two years. Nearly 53% of male high school graduates in Tennessee did not attend college in the fall.

And equity disparities are growing, as Latino graduates have seen the largest declines in college enrollment. Only 35% of graduating Latinos enrolled in college last fall. Since 2019, black graduates and Latino graduates have seen an 11% drop in enrollment.

Celeste Carruthers, professor of labor economics at UT’s Haslam College of Business, said a few disruptions could deter students from pursuing higher education.

Scenes from the 2019 Bartlett High School graduation ceremony at Bellevue Baptist Church on Monday, May 13, 2019.

“For many people and many students, college is like a very complicated daily game of Tetris, constantly changing and moving all the pieces to fit, Carruthers said Monday. “The pandemic and the fallout that followed completely changed the game and let it crumble…at the same time.”

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“Interruptions” include short-term changes to the college experience due to the pandemic. For example, students who had a negative experience with online learning in high school might take a break until in-person classes resume. Or someone who is immunocompromised (or who lives with someone who is) could take a year off to avoid health risks.

Both of these interruptions are barriers fueled by the pandemic, but which will hopefully ease as the country manages COVID-19.

“Disruptions,” however, are pandemic-related changes with potential lasting effects, such as labor shortages.

“Currently there are more jobs than job seekers,” Carruthers said. “Local businesses recruit directly from high school.”

High school graduates have gotten more new jobs, with higher hourly wages, over the past two years, Carruthers said, which could keep them from taking classes.

Time constraints, childcare and economic uncertainty also play a role.

What does this mean for Tennessee?

With fewer high school graduates enrolled in college, the state’s economic and labor needs may be in jeopardy.

As of 2019 — the latest data available — nearly 47% of working adults in Tennessee have a college degree or technical certification. That means the state is about 8% away from meeting its 2025 goal of getting just over half of working adults in the state with some kind of degree.

“When we started Drive to 55 … nine years ago, we were really worried about whether we would have the right workforce,” former Gov. Bill Haslam, who implemented Tennessee, said Monday. Promise.

Former Governor Bill Haslam speaks during

This worry has not gone away. While higher salaries right out of high school might be persuasive for fresh graduates, both Haslam and Carruthers said college usually pays off.

“The jobs you can do above $45,000 without a degree or certificate are still very limited,” Haslam said. “And then the jobs we’re hiring in Tennessee increasingly require a higher skill set.”

And with declining birth rates, fewer high school graduates will go on to college and enter the workforce. The number of high school graduates in Tennessee will peak by 2026 and then decline, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.

“Falling birth rates mean businesses are now spending more time than ever thinking, ‘How can I automate this?'” Haslam said. “I just think this trend is going to intensify.”

Laura Testino covers education and childhood issues for the trade appeal. Contact her at or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino


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