About 60% of last year's graduating high school seniors in Knox County went to college or trade school this fall, dropping 4% from the year before and hitting a 5-year low for the county.
It follows a decline in the college-going rate: nearly half of Tennessee's high school seniors didn't pursue any post-secondary education like trade school or community college after they graduated last year.
The drop could be a temporary change caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. More students might be considering a break after years of hybrid and online learning.
The labor shortage and higher starting wages could be pulling students from starting college immediately, too, as companies have started recruiting directly from high school.
Either way, college administrators are concerned.
While Knox County's seniors are going to college at a higher rate than the state, East Tennessee has seen fewer and fewer students going to college or technical school right after they graduate from high school.
Here's a detailed look at what the college pipeline looks like in East Tennessee.
East Tennessee has more college-bound grads than state, but not by much
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Compared to neighboring counties, Knox County has the highest college-going rate at about 60%, but it's not the highest rate in East Tennessee. Unicoi County has the highest college-going rate at about 63%, and Sullivan County has about 62%.
Unicoi and Sullivan County both have smaller graduating classes, so they're more likely to have swings in graduation rates and immediate college enrollment, said Steven Gentile, the chief policy director for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. He spoke this week at an event about the college pipeline hosted by the University of Tennessee's Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.
The three counties with the lowest college-going rates in the East Tennessee region are Union County and Bledsoe County at 35%, and Grainger County at 36%.
The college-going rates for the counties adjacent to Knox County are:
Anderson County: 57%, down 6% from 2020
Blount County: 54%, down 5%
Grainger County: 36%, down 18%
Jefferson County: 47%, up 2%
Knox County: 60%, down 4%
Loudon County: 44%, down 10%
Roane County: 52%, down 10%
Sevier County: 49%, down 2%
Union County: 35%, down 10%
Only three counties in East Tennessee saw positive growth in the number of high school graduates going to college over the past five years: Johnson County, Polk County and Campbell County.
What helped those counties get more graduates enrolled in college or trade school? They had Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, commonly known as GEAR UP, a federally funded grant program designed to increase college readiness among low-income students.
"We've had great increases in college-going rate in Johnson County, and (it's) above zero, which, in this data, is a big winning story," Gentile said.
Grainger County also participated in one round of GEAR UP. It was so successful, the county didn't qualify for the second round, and the program ended in 2018. The college-going rate nosedived from 62% in 2017 to 36% in 2021.
"Did GEAR UP stepping away from that county lead to that plummeting? We're unsure," Gentile said. "But it definitely has us asking more questions about the level of support we give counties and what we can and should be doing for counties moving forward."
While college-going rates across the state and across each grand division have crashed, East Tennessee isn't the worst out of the three.
In 2017, the college-going rate in East Tennessee was the lowest compared with Middle and West Tennessee. But in 2021, it climbed to second place behind Middle Tennessee.
"In 2021, (the college-going rate is) still very low. It's plummeted. It's not good news," Gentile said. "The silver lining is that it's now above the average, and it's closer within five-tenths to Middle Tennessee."
West Tennessee has seen the biggest drop in college-going graduates.
Disparities by race and gender
Fewer high school graduates in East Tennessee are going to college, regardless of their race. But white students (the majority of students in the region) continue to go to college at higher rates than their Black and Latino peers.
"The gaps between (Black and Latino students) and white students have expanded greatly during this time," Gentile said.
The college-going rate for white students in East Tennessee dropped from 62% in 2019 to 55% in 2021. For Black students, it's fallen from 58% to 48%, and for Latino students, it's dropped from 47% to 37%.
The overall college-going rate for all students in East Tennessee dropped from 61% to 53%, closely mirroring the state average.
Looking at men and women going to college right after graduating, fewer men continue to go to college than women. More than 52% of men chose not to attend college or trade school right after graduating from high school, compared to about 41% of women deciding not to enroll.
East Tennessee trade schools seeing success
While fewer students are going to college after they graduate, those who are taking the trade school route are investing in East Tennessee.
This past fall, more than 1,800 public high school graduates enrolled at one of Tennessee's Colleges of Applied Technology.
That might not sound like a lot, but it's a 7.5% share of the 24,000 high school graduates who enrolled in public higher education in Tennessee.
Of high school graduates going to Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology, 38% are going to TCATs in East Tennessee, said Gentile.
TCAT Chattanooga, TCAT Knoxville and TCAT Morristown are seeing the highest enrollment, with 117, 110 and 109 high school students enrolling right after graduation. Gentile says this could be because of investments in dual enrollment in their high school education.
"We are putting opportunities at TCAT Morristown for students in high school to directly engage with that TCAT," Gentile said.
Community colleges are struggling
Not all of Tennessee's two-year institutions are seeing that success. Every East Tennessee regional community colleges has seen a dip in first-time, full-time student enrollment, Gentile said.
It means fewer students are utilizing the nationally recognized Tennessee Promise scholarship that provides two years of free tuition to any of the state's community or technical colleges.
East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga also saw a decline in this student group. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville, however, saw 22% more first-time, full-time students.
"This is true in every state with their flagship," Gentile said, saying that because flagship universities are more selective, they have more flexibility to accept more students. "If you're hurting on enrollment or projections aren't looking good, they can increase their enrollment easily being a more selective institution, whereas other institutions are less likely to do so or have that capability."
And most students still prefer attending a four-year university over a community college or technical school, according to a student survey by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Sixty-five percent of students said they would go to a four-year university if money were not an issue. About 9% of students said they would go to technical school, and a little less than 9% said they would go to a 2-year public college.
"As fewer and fewer high school students are coming of age to go to college, that might mean more of a serious issue for our regional education institutions, and less so for our flagship," Gentile said.
Becca Wright: Higher education reporter at Knox News
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Just 3 of 5 Knox County high schoolers go to college or trade school