Tennessee Enrollment Case Study on Misleading Narratives

US postsecondary enrollment is in free fall, especially at community colleges, and there is plenty of concern about what this trend means and how to reverse it. But it can be quite difficult for education leaders to make smart strategic decisions when there is so much noise in the data, and so many narratives involved. With the 2015 implementation of the Tennessee Promise, a last dollar scholarship program that was one of the first big initiatives to bring net tuition to zero statewide, we have an interesting case study in today’s news.

SHEEO Session

What got my interest to explore this story further is Matt Reed’s IHE post on the SHEEO conference, with this paragraph:

The rest of the panels were somewhat more optimistic. I was blown away by the panel on postsecondary completion initiatives in Tennessee. The presenters – Samantha Gutter, Krissy DeAlejandro, and Susan Rhodes went very quickly through some of the program names, most of which sounded alike, so I won’t try to reconstruct which program led to which intervention. But the short version is that the combination of free community college for high school students, free community college for returning adults, emergency grants, and foundation-funded wraparound supports in the high schools has dramatically improved the collegegoing rate and the college graduation rate. In 2011, by Gutter’s telling, the percentage of adults in Tennessee with a post-secondary credential was 32.1. By 2019, it was 46.8. That doesn’t happen by accident.

The session in question was “Rising to the Challenge: Statewide Approach to Postsecondary Completion Initiatives in Tennessee”, with presenters from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), the Ayers Foundation, and tnAchieves, where the latter two are founding partners in the Tennessee Promise program. Three presenters all interested in showing great progress from their initiatives. From the session description:

Best practices on how to scale effective strategies to other state and institution contexts, insights on how a program started at the local level can be scaled to statewide implementation, and how to advocate and gain buy-in for state-level policy change will be the main objectives the session.

College attainment is up, let us show you how to duplicate our success.

Same Group, Different Narrative

If you take this narrative as gospel, well it seems we have some best practices in Tennessee that are already successful, and we need to get buy-in and scale to other states. There’s a problem with this story, however, and it is hiding in plain sight. As described by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission itself in “College-Going Rate Decline Requires a Call to Action for Postsecondary Access and Completion Efforts in Tennessee”.

The report shows that the college-going rate has been trending down over the past five years, from 63.8 percent for the Class of 2017 to 52.8 percent for the Class of 2021. Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a nine percentage point drop in the college-going rate between the Class of 2019 and the Class of 2021. With declines in college going, we are also observing declines in overall freshmen enrollment in Tennessee. Similar trends are seen nationally, with the National Student Clearinghouse Current Term Enrollment Estimates reporting a 9.2 percent total decline in freshman enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2021. Changes in the Tennessee college-going rate have not been evenly distributed across the state, with counties seeing different rates of change, and there were notable disparities in the college-going rate changes between Black and Hispanic students and white students.

That certainly seems relevant to the SHEEO session topic, no? 1

Data Sources

It turns out that the data presented at SHEEO is not wrong, but the data presented lacks context and is cherry picked. The “the percentage of adults in Tennessee with a post-secondary credential was 32.1. By 2019, it was 46.8” claim appears to come from this Lumina Foundation site that tracks college attainment over time.

Highlighting 2011 data:

Lumina data on Tennessee college attainment in 2011

And highlighting 2019 data:

Lumina data on Tennessee college attainment in 2019

As is clearly noted at the bottom, the Lumina Foundation changed their data methods in 2013/14 and in 2017/18 to include new certificate measurements to their definition of postsecondary attainment. If you stick with the original definitions, the improvement is from 32.1% in 2011 to 38.7% in 2019. That is still an improvement worth considering, and it is useful to see the growth of non-degree certificates, but it is misleading to use the 32.1% to 46.8% increase as the proof of your pudding without the context that you added whipped cream.

But there is still a disconnect here – is postsecondary achievement increasing in Tennessee or is it dropping? The question mostly comes down to whether you’re looking at lagging indicators such as 2019 and prior attainment (degree or certificate completed, meaning that the students started in the mid 2010s or earlier), or you’re looking at leading indicators such as college enrollment as recently as 2021. In the THEC census report that led to the alarming news item, figure 2 shows “the overall college-going rate of Tennessee’s public high school graduates over the last decade”.

Tennessee statewide college-going rate from 2011 to 2021

There was an increase in the early 2010s, with a significant spike in 2015 likely associated with the Tennessee Promise introduction. But since that time there has been a very concerning decline, and it cannot be explained away by Covid. Well, Covid seems to provide an acceleration, but it did not start or end the trend. The obvious conclusion is that the 2019 attainment levels do not include much of this decline in enrollment and might represent the historical high water mark of attainment. In other words, the most recent indicators point to a potentially alarming decline in future postsecondary attainment, not a continuing success story. The THEC knows this based on their own data.

A Untaught Lesson?

There are important lessons to be learned from Tennessee, both positive and negative, if you look at the big picture. Interestingly, another IHE article today discussed encouraging enrollment signs from free tuition programs, with details on the Maine Community Colleges in particular.

“When you give the impression that the aid is not guaranteed, it has almost no effect on enrollment,” he added.

As noted, Tennessee’s program is a last dollar scholarship program leading to free net tuition, and it does not have that simple message. Is that part of the lesson here? We tried an early version of free tuition along with some companion mentoring programs, and we got a year one spike, but it’s all been downhill from there. Maybe we should have tried, or need to try, a simpler direct free tuition approach instead.

I don’t know if that is would be the biggest lesson involved, but it would be a fascinating session to attend, and it would be much more useful than one based using cherry-picked data.

Update: I edited some of the language to keep focus on data / narratives and not on intentions.

1 Yes, I am assuming that Matt Reed described the session accurately given his track record of high quality blog posts.

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