The USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee found that where you live can determine your success in college.
Nashville Tennessean

As well, Davidson County saw about 100 fewer students head to college in 2018.

Tennessee’s high school college-going rate dipped in 2018, the most significant decline since the state started its heralded college access scholarship program.

The drop, however, isn’t likely a cause for concern as thousands of students statewide head back to college this fall. 

Instead, those who work to improve college access say the drop is a fluctuation marking a “new normal” after Tennessee Promise helped boost enrollment among recent Tennessee high school graduates.

“When Promise was implemented, it was a shock to the system,” said Emily House, Tennessee Higher Education Commission chief policy officer. Tennessee Promise offers recent graduates community or technical college free of tuition and fees.

The shock came in the form of almost 5,000 additional high school graduates enrolling in the state’s colleges in 2015 — bringing the total to 16,100 recent graduates statewide. 

In the program’s fourth year, the number of students enrolling in college straight out of high school dropped to 14,430 in 2018, according to THEC numbers.

House expects a fluctuation in how many students enroll — in 2017 and 2016, enrollment, respectively, was 15,182 and 15,538. But she doesn’t expect student enrollment to drop down to fall 2014 figures.

“I think it is natural variation,” House said. “We are at a new normal.”

A shifting population of students 

Some parts of the state have seen gains in enrollment, House said, including schools in Humboldt and Hickman counties. Those schools have put in place GEAR UP and Advise Tennessee programs. The programs help guide students in their post-high school options.

But recent high school graduates make up only a part of the students heading to college statewide since the state put into place Tennessee Reconnect. The program offers community or technical college free of tuition and fees to adults.

House said adults are often labeled nontraditional students. But they are more mainstream since Tennessee Reconnect started last school year.

The goal is to keep a focus on recent high school graduates, House said, “but also think about how we support our veterans or adults.”

Davidson County sees drop

Drops, however, were also seen in Davidson County, which saw about 100 fewer students go to college in 2018 compared with 2017.

In 2017, 2,698 graduates enrolled in higher education immediately after graduation. In 2018, this number was 2,588, according to numbers provided by House.

John-Paul Gray, a Nashville schools GEAR UP coordinator, said many Nashville students are starting to see that Tennessee Promise doesn’t offer many supports for students, especially those disadvantaged, heading to community colleges.

He said many have seen peers struggle with housing, transportation and food when they enter college. And a recent study has shown less than a quarter of Nashville students graduate with a degree after they leave the city’s schools.

“They are at a point in their lives where they see peers and family members attend two- and four-year universities,” Gray said. “What they see is their lives in community college isn’t consistent.”

Gray said the goal has been to steer students toward the right opportunities such as four-year programs that offer stable environments with housing and food.

He said more resources are needed overall to ensure all students are successful when they enter college, especially at the community college level.

Nashville Metro government has a new program called Nashville GRAD that will provide scholarships for books, transportation and living expenses at community colleges. The program was launched by Mayor David Briley.

Gray said that is positive for students. 

“The city is recognizing and seeing what is going on, and hopefully we will see a shift in completion rates,” he said.

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Reach Jason Gonzales at and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.

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