Why Is Graduating From High School Normal In Parts Of Tennessee And Going To College Not?

Lake County in northwest Tennessee has the lowest college completion rate in the state, but several Middle Tennessee counties aren't far behind, including Hickman, Houston, Perry and Grundy. Credit: Our Lady Of Discrace via Flickr

Lake County in northwest Tennessee has the lowest college completion rate in the state, but several Middle Tennessee counties aren’t far behind, including Hickman, Houston, Perry and Grundy. Credit: Our Lady Of Disgrace via Flickr

There’s a stubborn mindset in Tennessee – where college-going rates lag most of the country. Government officials trying to boost education levels say people just don’t see the need, despite dire forecasts that a majority of jobs will require a degree by 2025.

In a handful of rural counties, fewer than one-in-10 working-age adults went to college. And while money, proximity to campuses and even broadband access all play a role, state leaders say the primary stumbling block may be cultural.

“The biggest barrier we have is the low expectations we have – for ourselves and for our children,” says Randy Boyd, special assistant to Governor Bill Haslam on higher education.

Hickman County – less than an hour’s drive from Nashville – is a place where practically everyone finishes high school and very few go to college.

In a barbershop on the Centerville town square, Mae Rosson snips at a full head of silver hair. She was born and raised here in one of the state’s most sprawling and least populated counties, where the widest roads are still just two lanes. She didn’t consider going to college, nor did her five kids.

Mae Rosson dries a man's hair. She worked at the Hickman County Levi's plant making blue jeans for 24 years. When it closed, she got licensed to cut hair. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Mae Rosson dries a man’s hair. She worked at the Hickman County Levi’s plant making blue jeans for 24 years. When it closed, she got licensed to cut hair. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

“Mine, when they got out of high school, they were just ready to get a job and make some money and buy them a car,” she says. “Just didn’t think about college.”

It’s a generational cycle that hasn’t changed much in the areas just beyond Tennessee’s suburbs. And perhaps for good reason.

More often than success stories, the tales that fill Dale Ethridge’s barbershop are discouraging.

“I’ve heard some sad stories where people are still paying $50,000 for a [student loan], and they’re out here trying to make a living in a coffee shop,” he says.

Choosing To Leave

Used to be, a high school diploma was more than enough to get a job at the Levi’s plant making blue jeans or nearby on the YKK button factory.

The reality for anyone growing up in a place like Hickman County is that going to college means going away. There’s no university, community college or even  technical school campus here.

And there’s not a whole lot to do with a college degree if someone wanted to come back home.

“You can’t make money piddlin’ around here,” says Kristy McCaleb, who opened a flower shop on the town square this year.

After high school, McCaleb chose to start a family. Her daughter is a senior this year.

“She wanted to go to college, but who knows,” she says.

McCaleb isn’t pushing one way or the other, even though she’s willing to make the financial sacrifice to put her daughter through school.

“If that’s not what she wants, she’s not going to put forth the effort,” she says. “Then, why go?”

On college day at Hickman County High School, students make smalltalk with recruiters. Most of them will not end up going to college, if previous years are any indication. Many say they do plan on going to some type of trade school. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

On college day at Hickman County High School, students make smalltalk with recruiters. Most of them will not end up going to college, if previous years are any indication. Many say they do plan on going to some type of trade school. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

It’s college-picking time at Hickman County High School. On college day, seniors file into the gym and wonder among the recruiter tables. 

Only a few have firm plans. They’re the ones wearing MTSU and Tennessee Tech t-shirts. Others have already enlisted in the military. But if this graduating class is like last year’s, most in this class of 150 are done with education.

“We probably had 20 or so that went to a university, maybe 30. That’s probably stretching it,” says guidance counselor Shelda Qualls.

Mixed Messages

“It’s our life. We can do what we want,” says senior Kevin Brown.

Brown says his parents are encouraging him to at least go to a trade school, like his older brother did.

“Because they don’t want me being a bum,” he says. “But I don’t think college is for everybody, because you can go and waste a lot of money and not know what you’re going to do.”

Principal Phillip Jacobs says his students have great potential, but they don’t always get a lot of encouragement from home. Most of their parents didn’t go to college either.

“If the parents are sending one message, and the schools are sending another, then the student is going to take the easier of the two paths,” Jacobs says.

This school graduates 92 percent of its students, but very few go on to college. And of those who do, many have trouble returning home because there are so few jobs that require a degree. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

This school graduates 92 percent of its students, but very few go on to college. And of those who do, many have trouble returning home because there are so few jobs that require a degree. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

This is a county where nearly everyone graduates – 92 percent last year. That’s a big number considering half of the students come from what are considered poor families.

But money doesn’t have to be the ultimate barrier if there is a real desire to go to school, Jacobs says. So he’s frustrated when students tell him they plan on going straight to work. “Where?” he asks. “The factories?”

“Those things are gone and they’re not coming back,” he says. “Now what do we do next? I don’t think a lot of our folks have latched onto the fact that education is the way out of that.”

College was the way to get ahead for Jacobs. He was the first in his family to go beyond high school – the son of an electrician and a hairdresser. But they always told him he was headed to college.

When so many smaller barriers abound, Jacobs says students can’t afford for low expectations to be one of them.

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