December 13, 2017

The Tennessean: Dropout rates remain high at Tennessee colleges, especially among black students, report says

By Jason Gonzales

Even as Tennessee is being praised for opening college doors through Tennessee Promise and other programs, there are signs that some of higher education's biggest and most persistent hurdles still keep many students from succeeding.

Enrollment and retention have ticked up at community colleges, according to a report released Wednesday by the education advocacy group Complete Tennessee. But dropout rates remain alarmingly high, especially for poor and minority students.

"While we have seen some improvements in postsecondary attainment, our most vulnerable citizens are still struggling to earn the credentials necessary to compete for in-demand, local jobs,” said Kenyatta Lovett, Complete Tennessee executive director.

Among the findings in the "Beneath the Surface: State of Higher Education in Tennessee" report:

  • Community college enrollment has grown by 2 percent from 2016-2017, but enrollment trends across other institutions are relatively flat.
  • Despite efforts to increase adult participation in higher education, adult enrollment has dropped 25 percent since 2011.
  • Student retention rates have increased, but black students are more likely to drop out than their peers.
  • Despite Tennessee's historically low unemployment rates, black residents experience higher levels of unemployment despite many earning similar degrees or credentials.

The report says the state must focus on these issues, especially as the state seeks to get more Tennesseans a college education through its Drive to 55 initiative.

"Current achievement gaps raise questions about the possibility or the moral standard of achieving the Drive to 55 goal if certain groups of Tennesseans are left behind," according to the report.

Tennessee's struggles aren't unique. Colleges nationwide have faced similar challenges.

But Lovett said there are examples Tennessee can pull from to push for improvements here, especially in retaining low-income and minority students.

"There are monetary returns on investment," Lovett said. "And it is beneficial for communities."

The report highlights practices from around the country that Tennessee colleges can look toward. It also calls for action in enacting solutions.

One such best practice Lovett said is schools can begin to look toward making a student's education more hands-on, especially through internships. That creates relevance and helps build student networks with jobs, he said.

"For low-income students and students of color, their networks aren’t as advanced or as broad as some of their peers," Lovett said. "Employers and colleges should ensure that students have robust experiences and understanding of the work, as well as how to enter into career fields."

Gov. Bill Haslam has said his priorities and budget in 2018 will put a spotlight on low graduation rates, although it is unclear exactly what he will do.