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Fewer Tennessee high school graduates immediately entering college because of COVID-19 pandemic

While the state's numbers may be falling, Knox County students are beating the odds.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — According to data from Tennessee Promise, only around 62 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college during the summer or fall term immediately following graduation.

That number dropped 6 percent statewide since the pandemic. Knox County’s college-going rate, however, has increased by 2 percent. 

TNAchieves’ program, Tennessee Promise, is a college scholarship and mentorship program partnering with schools across Knox County to make higher education more accessible.

"We were steadily rising in both college-going rates and college graduation rates, and then COVID-19 hit and I think like a lot of things across the state, across the country, across the world [changed] — it's had an impact," said Graham Thomas with TNAchieves.

The college-going rate in Tennessee dropped this past year from 65 percent to 57 percent, but Knox County Schools were able to beat the odds.

"We've been able to offer Knox County students some additional wrap-around support across the state, and in Knox County," Thomas said.

Officials said that the main impact is coming from the program’s mentorship program. Students are paired with a volunteer mentor to help them navigate the transition from high school to college. They said they need 9,000 volunteers for 1 hour per month to make the program work.

These mentors answer questions from students, provide guidance on how to succeed in college, and stand by them when they need it.

Thomas also said one of the main reasons high school students are passing up college is due to learning loss brought on by the pandemic. Tennessee Promise is working to combat that with their Summer Bridge Program, which Thomas said has an 80 percent success rate.

It is a 3-week course that gives students an opportunity to test into college coursework if their grades haven't been good enough.

The Knox County School District is also focusing on more than just the pandemic. They're stepping forward to get students into these programs.

"That's really important for use for the system to produce the workforce for tomorrow," said Jon Rysewyk, the Knox County Assistant Superintendent.

Rysewyk said they are focusing on helping students prepare for the future.

"Part of our job in the community is to prepare students for those choices once they graduate from us," he said.

Tennessee Promise is still looking for 6,000 volunteers to help students succeed. Participants have to be at least 21 years old and pass a background check. To learn more, click here.