Today’s release of “College Going and the Class of 2021”, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s latest report, reveals in stark and jarring detail the challenge before us to ensure that our high school graduates progress to postsecondary institutions, and should raise alarms for educators and college administrators. More than any other factor, a postsecondary degree is the ticket to achieving social and economic mobility, and yet far fewer students of color and from low-income backgrounds are enrolling in and completing college. 

Despite nationally-recognized efforts to make college more affordable, Tennessee has seen a precipitous decline since 2017 in college going rates, with a 9% percentage drop overall, and an alarming drop of 15% for Black students and 13% drop for Latino students.  Additionally, the data points to troubling gender disparities, with a 13 point percentage between male and female college-going rates, and only 30% of Latino males and 37.5% of Black males enrolling in postsecondary. 

Universal approaches to solving the drops in college-going rates will not suffice, and targeted strategies, as well as the incorporation of the voices of students and practitioners, must anchor policy and practice solutions. The Education Trust in Tennessee launched the Thrive Network this year, which is a project that equips Black and Latino students, and community organizations serving these students, with tools and resources to identify and advance proven strategies to increase the number of Black and Latino students progressing to postsecondary education. We’ve also launched the monthly Thrive College Access Learning Series, which equips advocates, practitioners, parents and students with knowledge, tools and skills to understand barriers to college access for students of color and students from low-income families.

Thrive Fellow and college student Brea Hinds, a junior and education major at the University of Memphis, responded to today’s report with the following recommendations:

“High schools can be the only place students of color have time and access to resources to prepare for college, and there are two ways to ensure more students make it. First, inform students of the process before their senior year. Second, high schools can prioritize helping students create a transition plan to college. Many students of color still do not have family to help them navigate the college process, so their high schools need to be that support system. Many students do not find out about resources until it is too late, and they are not met with open arms at colleges and universities. The drops in college enrollment for students of color speak to how little proactive support and the unwelcoming environment these institutions are providing to their students of color.”

Jennifer Novo, the Executive Director of FUTURO and a member of the Thrive Community of Practice and TN Alliance member, reacted to today’s report with the following:

“The pandemic devastated Latino families, who were disproportionately impacted and who are struggling to meet their basic needs with the rising cost of living, forcing many families to forgo college education for their children in lieu of a paycheck. FUTURO believes that policymakers must fund culturally responsive programs that support families in order to access resources; these programs have proven to positively impact retention and graduation rates among Latino youth.”

The Education Trust in Tennessee released a report on higher education enrollment disparities in late 2020. Entitled “Tennessee: Segregation Forever?”, we spotlight key ways that institutions are currently addressing drops in college-going as well as racial disparities, and offer concrete recommendations. We urge post-secondary and K-12 policymakers to adopt solutions that are evidence-based and data-driven, equity-centered, and that incorporate the voices of students and practitioners in the field.

The pandemic laid bare what has always been true of K-12 and higher education – when institutions and leaders deem it necessary, new policies can and will be enacted quickly and efficiently. It is now time for Tennessee’s school systems and public colleges and universities to apply the same force and will to ensure Tennessee’s students have a pathway to post-secondary. Their future, and ours, depend on it.