KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Higher education leaders across Tennessee say they are struggling to combat a decline in college enrollment.

A new report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission has shed light on the number of students going to college straight out of high school. It says that 63.8% of students in the class of 2017 went to college after high school, but that number shrank to 52.8% for the class of 2021.

The waning number of students entering the “college pipeline” in Tennessee is now forcing school leaders to reconsider recruitment and retainment. The college pipeline is a metaphor to describe the path that college leaders encourage high schoolers to take after they graduate.

(Photo: WATE)

The pipeline starts while students are still in school with recruitment and conversations about post-high school graduation plans. Although the idea is not overly-complicated, its execution is.

“What we’re seeing, due to the pandemic, are less students entering the college-going pipeline,” tnAchieves President and CEO Krissy Dealejrandro said. “It’s incredibly concerning so we’re gathering everyone today to discuss what needs to happen so we can get students back to college.”

According to recent data, there are several reasons for the low enrollment. Reasons include: dislike of online learning, aversion to in-person learning, the cost of college, and changes to the labor market.

“What we’ve seen is a nine percentage point decline in the last two years of the pandemic, which is essentially a very alarming statistic and we’ve got to bring them back,” Dealejandro said.

The big question:

How do school leaders draw students back?

According to East Tennessee State University (ETSU) President Dr. Brian Noland, part of the solution could be making it less intimidating and confusing for potential students trying to enroll.

“The opportunity today is going to help decisions that we make as an institution around how we structure financial aid, how we create access opportunities,” Noland explained.

Another course of action: underscoring the importance of increased certifications–no matter the career choice.

“Two-year, four-year, public, private, TCAT, some form of postsecondary certification is required for students to make competitive in a 21st century economy,” Noland told WATE.

Naturally, no fix-all solution was discovered during Monday’s discussion. However, higher education leaders said similar conversations are needed to find out how to help students take the next step in their educational journeys.

You can watch Monday’s discussion by clicking here. There, you will also find data and other material that was included in the presentation.