As the football and girls’ soccer teams sweated through summer practice on the athletics fields at LaVergne High School, a small group of adult advisers inside shared tales of their own ordeals.
They spoke of high school graduates who had balked at writing essays or filling out the forms required to apply to college. Of parents suspicious about divulging what they earn so that their kids could get financial aid. Of students sure there was easy money to be made on TikTok or YouTube, or in jobs at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.
Part of a cadre of advisers deployed by the state to prod more Tennessee high school graduates into college, the women in this conference room have suddenly found their jobs to be much harder.
The proportion of high school graduates in Tennessee who are going directly to college is plummeting. Last year, it was less than 53 percent. That’s down 11 percentage points since 2017.
“He starts telling me, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ ” one adviser, Portia Cook, was recounting to her colleagues from the state program, called Advise TN, about a student at the top of his class who had changed his mind about continuing his education. “ ‘You’re talking about four more years of school? No.’ ”
Similar conversations took place nationwide this summer as worried state officials grappled with a dramatic and continuing slide in the number of Americans willing to invest the money and the time it takes to go to college. It’s a trend that experts say is likely to diminish people’s quality of life and the country’s economic competitiveness.
“With the exception of wartime, the United States has never been through a period of declining educational attainment like this,” said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University’s Miller College of Business.
There has been a significant and steady drop nationwide in the proportion of high school graduates enrolling in college in the fall after they finish high school — from a high of 70 percent in 2016 to 63 percent in 2020, the most recent year for which the figure is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.