Even before the arrival of the Coronavirus, the number and percentage of Alabama high school graduates entering higher education after graduation was falling.
According to new data from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), the college-going rate for the Class of 2019 declined to 58%, the lowest percentage of high school graduates going into higher education over the past five years. The rate likely won’t recover soon. Indications are that the pandemic drove down enrollment even further in 2020.
The 2019 decline in college-going likely reflected a strong economy and historically low unemployment rate. Enrollment losses were concentrated in the two-year college population. Enrollment in two-year colleges tends to fall when jobs are plentiful, and high school graduates have an immediate opportunity to go into the workforce. Meanwhile, in the fall of 2019, the number of Alabama high school graduates going on to four-year college increased slightly.
ACHE produces college-going statistics for Alabama high school graduates by querying the National Student Clearinghouse, which gathers student enrollments at colleges and universities across the country. The information is important because it provides information about the likely direction of educational attainment in the state and in local communities. Producing college and career-ready graduates and propelling them into advanced technical training or college degrees is a key priority for the state.
Downward Trend Likely to Continue in the Near Term
In a separate survey, ACHE gathers the overall fall enrollment from all Alabama public colleges. The results of the 2020 survey provide a glimpse of what college-going might look like for the Class of 2020. According to that data, the 2019 decline at two-year colleges was followed by an even steeper decline in 2020 of an additional 6 percent, as new graduates and schools navigated the pandemic, according to a separate set of data collected by ACHE.
The college-going rate drop presents a challenge in Alabama’s drive to add 500,000 highly skilled workers to its workforce by 2025. Community colleges are key to producing some of the most in-demand certifications and credentials.
Despite their affordability, convenience, and centrality to the skills-based training increasingly called for by prominent Alabama employers, two-year colleges have seen enrollments decline steadily over the past decade from 93,720 in 2011 to 79,938 in 2019. Preliminary fall enrollment in 2020 was 69,814.
Where High School Graduates Go?
Alabama’s high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 92% percent in 2019, but, according to ACHE’s data, the 2019 graduation year also produced the highest number of graduating students, since 2011, who didn’t go on to higher education.
ACHE followed 50,840 high school graduates in the year after they graduated in 2019.
- 29,384, or 58%, enrolled in higher education
- 15,376 enrolled in four-year colleges
- 14,008 enrolled in two-year colleges
- 21,456 were not found to have enrolled
- 90% of enrollees went to a college in Alabama
- 92% went to a public college
- Magnet schools and suburban school systems send higher percentages of students to four-year colleges.
- Three Montgomery County magnet high schools rank in the top 10 for college-going, along with Birmingham’s Ramsay High School, which is also a magnet. Suburban high schools like Mountain Brook, Vestavia-Hills, Hewitt-Trussville, and Hoover also rank in the top 10, along with Huntsville High School, a non-magnet high school in an urban system.
- Some rural and non-metro counties and systems achieve high college-going rates based on high enrollment in the local community college.
- Arab, Opp, and South Lamar High School rank in the top 20 for college-going due to the strength of their community college enrollments.
- Rural counties isolated from population centers and urban high schools in high poverty neighborhoods tend to have the lowest college-going rates.
While generalizations about performance can be made, some schools are outliers. The chart below compares Alabama high schools’ college-going rate (the vertical axis) with the student body’s poverty rate (the horizontal axis). The higher a school is on the chart, the higher the percentage of students who leave high school and enter college—the farther to the right on the chart, the lower the level of poverty. The slanted line in the middle is the average of the values, which forms a line of prediction. In general, the college-going rate rises as the student body poverty rate gets lower.
However, some schools outperform the level at which they would be predicted to perform based on the economic status of students. In 2019, examples included high schools like Wadley High School in Randolph County, Linden High School, Thomasville High School, and RA Hubbard High School in Lawrence County.
Why does it matter?
Alabama, as a state, and communities within Alabama would benefit from higher levels of educational attainment. Higher levels of education are associated with higher levels of income, better health, and longer life. States with higher levels of educational attainment have higher per capita income.
The tabs above the chart allow navigation to a variety of measures of college-going and educational attainment at the school, the system, the county, and the state level. The statistics are presented in graphics, tables, and maps.