Should we be dismayed or gratified that college enrollment of high school graduates in Hamilton County has fallen nearly 11% over the last five years, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC)?
The answer is yes.
If Hamilton County students who wanted to go to college in the last five years didn't because they couldn't afford it, didn't have transportation or simply didn't feel prepared, we should be dismayed.
If students didn't want to go to college because they wanted to work, preferred to seek a post-secondary training certification for some type of vocational employment or realized college was not the right place for them, we should be gratified.
We have been making the argument for years that college isn't for everyone. Indeed, it's a waste to take Tennessee Hope Scholarship money, Tennessee Promise resources, Pell grants or — especially — college loans just because they're available just to attend a college or university you know you're not cut out for.
According to THEC, 54.7% of high school graduates in Hamilton County in 2021 went to college. That number had fallen from 65.9% in 2017 and 63.7% in 2019.
But, wait, you might say, we had a little thing called COVID-19 beginning in 2020, which might account for the county's college enrollment falling to 59.5% that year. That's true, but that mark fell almost 5% more for 2021, when almost all colleges had resumed in-class learning.
It's not a Hamilton County-centric, issue, though.
Enrollment at Tennessee public colleges and universities in 2010 was 243,138 students, according to a 2021 THEC report. Subsequently, enrollment fell, rose from 2017 to 2019, then fell to 219,657 in 2020.
The 2010-2020 numbers fell at Austin Peay State University, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Tech University and University of Memphis. Locally, they fell nearly 3,000 students (to 7,604) at Chattanooga State Community College over the same period and more than 600 students (to 3,101) at Cleveland State Community College.
The headcount at University of Tennessee schools, meanwhile, rose 12% at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 3% at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and 18% at the University of Tennessee Medical Science Center over the same period. However, it fell around 16% at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
According to the 2022 THEC report, the five-year drop in Tennessee college enrollment from 2017 through 2021 was slightly steeper for men than women (11.6% vs. 10.5%) and steeper for Blacks vs. Hispanics or whites (14.9% vs. 11.6% and 8.7%).
In Tennessee, it's easier than perhaps in any other state to go to a public college if one desires. For students who are judged unable to pay for tuition after all scholarships and grants are applied, they can receive a financial award toward tuition and mandatory fees at eligible post-secondary institutes.
But we hope the pandemic, the abundance of jobs and the realization that college isn't for everyone have caused more consideration among students leaving high school.
With training at places like the Chattanooga Construction Career Center that is being created at the former Mary Ann Garber Elementary in Avondale, many high school graduates can receive instruction in vocations in which they can earn family wages — in many cases, far more than they might earn with some college degrees.
With that said, we would never dismiss the advantage of a college degree for those who want to go into careers where college training is necessary.
According to the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities, the difference in 2019 between annual median earnings for workers ages 22 to 27 for those who have a high school diploma vs. a bachelor's degree was $14,000 ($30,000 vs. $44,000). Based on lifetime earnings, a worker with a bachelor's degree could earn nearly $2.7 million vs. $1.3 million for someone with a high school diploma.
The same findings noted that workers with bachelor's degrees were 47% more likely to have health insurance through their jobs than those with high school diplomas, and the employers of those with bachelor's degree would contribute 74% more to health care coverage than employers of those with high school diplomas.
However, a 2021 study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that around 16% of those with a high school diploma earned more than half of the workers with a bachelor's degree and 28% of workers with an associate's degree earned more than half of the workers with a bachelor's degree.
Members of the huge baby boomer generation — those born between 1946 and 1964 — were told a college degree was the key to their future, and they told their children that. But their children may not necessarily be telling their children that.
So, while enrollment at state colleges may have dropped in recent few years, the more important consideration is how those recent high school graduates are spending their time. If they're working, getting training and seeking to better themselves in some way, then they've probably made the right decision for their future.
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