Tennessee is experiencing an education crisis. This is not a term we use lightly, but we do so in hopes of urging everyone to come together to help more Tennessee students succeed for decades to come.
The challenge is that tens of thousands of Tennessee high school graduates are choosing not to go to college. A new report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission shows the college-going rate dropped to 52.8% in 2021 — down nearly nine percentage points from 61.8% in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic.
After years of steady increases in the state’s college-going rate, the pandemic, along with higher entry-level wages, has resulted in too many students choosing to enter the workforce without the benefit of a post-secondary degree or some kind of career training.
But the short-term gain they feel now with higher hourly wages may actually hurt opportunities for most students in the long run. Data show students who do not attend a post-secondary institution immediately after high school are far less likely to ever return.
A high school diploma isn’t enough anymore
At the same time, the vast majority of jobs that pay a livable wage require some sort of education after high school — whether it be a certificate from one of the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology, an associate’s degree from a community college or a bachelor’s degree from one of the University of Tennessee’s five campuses or another college or university. A high school diploma is simply no longer enough for most jobs and careers.
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Whether you are an employer, parent or concerned citizen, this will affect you. Employers already face difficult decisions every day trying to find skilled workers. If the decline in the college-going rate continues, the skilled workforce shortage will only get worse.
We must use the steep decline in the college-going rate as an urgent wake-up call for all of us to get involved to help the future of Tennessee’s workforce. It is truly the challenge of our times.
The support system created by tnAchieves works
At tnAchieves, we are ready to meet this challenge head on.
In the 15 years since tnAchieves was formed, we have served over 500,000 Tennessee students. Through the hard work of supporting student success, we have learned investment in a support system for our students is critical. But there is good news. The support system we have created works.
If you are a tnAchieves student, you are 42% more likely to graduate from community college in three years than a student who does not participate in the program. If you are a Black tnAchieves student, you are 300% more likely to graduate in three years than a Black student who does not participate in the program.
Knox Promise, a pilot program supported by the Haslam Family Foundation and SCORE, shows coached students who receive a completion grant are 150% more likely to remain in college.
Thanks to our private donors, Gov. Bill Lee, the Tennessee General Assembly, the THEC and others, we are expanding our work.
Now, every economically disadvantaged TN Promise student will not only have a volunteer mentor to help them enroll in college but also a full-time COMPLETE coach to proactively support them to a post-secondary credential. They will also have access to completion grant funding to address barriers like food, transportation, technology and housing insecurities.
The tnAchieves organization is also reimagining our nationally-celebrated volunteer mentoring program by bringing back in-person meetings and scheduling these much earlier in the student’s high school senior year.
We are doing our very best to level the playing field for all students.
We feel a sense of urgency to collaborate and find innovative and disruptive ways to bring students back into the post-secondary pipeline, but we can’t do it alone. We need everyone — from business leaders to parents to community volunteers to get involved by becoming a mentor — and to encourage all high school students to pursue some sort of post-secondary degree or certification after high school. The future of Tennessee and our country depends on it.
Visit tnachieves.org to learn more about how you can help mentor and support the 90,000 students we serve.
Krissy DeAlejandro is the executive director of tnAchieves, the partnering organization to the TN Promise Scholarship in 90 of the 95 counties in Tennessee.
Randy Boyd is the president of the University of Tennessee System, a co-founder of the Drive to 55 initiative and chairman of the tnAchieves board.