Yesterday’s release of  “College Going and the Class of 2022” from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showcases Tennessee’s steps to recovery from a historic 9 percentage point college-going decline, but also reaffirms a pressing need to address gaps by race, gender, and economic status. While the 1.5 percentage point college-going rate (CGR) increase to 54.3 percent is a testament to the hard work of Tennessee’s agencies, school districts, institutions, and community-based organizations, persistent disparities in college access for students of color are a call to action for immediate, targeted solutions.

Encouragingly, race and gender gaps in college-going have shrank for the Class of 2022, with Black students CGR increasing by 2.9 percentage points to 46.9 percent, and Latino students CGR increasing by 2.3 points to 37.3 percent. For men, the college-going rate has grown by 1.8 points to 48.3 percent. However, these still wide gaps represent an immense challenge for the future of Tennessee. For the Class of 2022, less than 1 in 3 Latino men and only 40 percent of Black men enrolled in higher education the fall immediately after high school. 

The Education Trust – Tennessee continues to pursue equitable college access for all Tennesseeans, and has convened the Thrive Network – a project that equips Black and Latino students and community organizations with tools and resources that advance proven strategies to increase the number of underrepresented students progressing to higher education. We believe that all students – regardless of age, economic status, citizenship, or background – are deserving of an affordable, high quality postsecondary education.

One of The Education Trust’s League Leaders, Kaya Phillips, a rising senior and Speech Language Disorders major at Southern University, responds to the report and her thoughts on the importance of college-going:

“Higher education is so important to me because I am able to learn and grow emotionally, intellectually, and in so many other areas of life. I faced several barriers coming into college – I started out at a community college and just knowing the system and the lack of communication… You have to know what questions to ask to figure out what answers to get. My mom being a first generation student, we had to learn how to do it on our own. I have always known that I wanted to go to college and get my doctoral degree, and climb the ladder of success.”

Thrive Fellow Elijah Watley, a rising sophomore and Biomedical Engineering major at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, reflects on his experience working to improve college access for underrepresented groups: 

“College access in the Black and Latino community has been a major problem in the education system, especially in the state of Tennessee. The ten Thrive Fellows who engaged in this year-long process had the same goal in finding a way to increase college access to our communities. We all believe that higher education is needed to provide individuals, especially underrepresented minorities, with more career and life opportunities. After working on this project with other fellows, I am already striving to make an impact on my campus to make sure Black students succeed academically and give more support to high schools in my area.”

We applaud the incredible work of Momentum Year 2023 and the multitude of local organizations that work to increase the number of students who can access higher education. However, with a state goal to increase college-going to 60 percent for the Class of 2023, we recognize that more must be done, particularly to support the students who have been most impacted by the pandemic

Tennessee has entered a critical stage for the future of our education system. Targeted solutions – led by the voices of students and practitioners in the field – will drive innovative and equitable solutions that will unlock opportunity for our students.