Tennessee community colleges see lowest enrollment in two decades


Tennessee is experiencing the lowest level of community college enrollment since 2001.

Distance learning, childcare challenges, and loss of income amid the pandemic have forced many adult learners to delay or end their higher education journey.

Russ Deaton, executive vice chancellor for policy and strategy for the , said local economies would likely feel the effects of declining enrollment, noting that community colleges help ensure that major local employers have workers available. qualified and that residents have access to better paying jobs.

“We are doing everything we can to turn the tide,” Deaton said. “And you see our college being more intentional about recruiting, both at the high school level and in the community with adults, thinking much more deeply about how they serve students better.”

Falling enrollment is also affecting community college revenue, with colleges laying off some employees in response. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, community college enrollment nationwide is down 13%.

Still, Deaton pointed to some positive signs of a rebound. He pointed out that Tennessee’s network of 27 technical colleges or T-CATS has seen enrollment rise since the pandemic. He noted that more than 23,000 students are getting certified in welding, automotive technology, truck driving and other technical fields.

“I think the final story remains to be seen,” Deaton pointed out. “Community colleges have already seen declines in enrollment. And part of that is just the cycle of how the economy works.”

He pointed out that placement rates for T-CAT graduates continue to be above 85%.

He added that community colleges are a backbone for rural communities, providing opportunities for students from all walks of life.

“The community college or T-CAT is the center of economic activity in a community,” Deaton argued. “They train the workforce for this area. They provide dual enrollment students or mature students the opportunity to come back and get additional training.”

Deaton confirmed that about 61,000 Tennessee students are enrolled in community colleges this spring.

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