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Report: Latinos are least likely to go to college after graduating high school in Tennessee

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Students walk the campus of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. It's one of many four-year public colleges across the state.

The number of Tennessee high schoolers going to college after graduating has been on the decline for the past few years.

In 2021, barely half of students, or 52.8%, made it to a college classroom in the fall, according to a new report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. But before anyone jumps to conclusions, plenty of high school graduates say they don’t want to go to college and prefer to enter the workforce or pursue entrepreneurship.

For kids who do want to go to college, however, there are barriers preventing them from doing so — like a lack of counseling support, having to support family, not being prepared for higher education in high school and the high cost of getting a degree.

Two of the biggest concerns about the downward trend are the racial and gender disparities. Since 2017, the college-going rate for young men has declined 11.6 percentage points compared to 10.5 percentage points for young women.

Latinos are the least likely to enroll in college, behind Blacks, whites, Asians and other racial groups.

Middle Tennessee State University senior Diana Medina says college might be on the back burner for many underinvested high school graduates because of inflation and other issues.

“In our culture, if you are the oldest in the family, most of the time, you just have to take care of your siblings,” she says. “So, that might lead to the first person in the family, the oldest person, to not go to college.”

Medina is Mexican-American and knows firsthand the challenges of Latinos who want to go to college. She says younger kids tend to follow in their older siblings’ footsteps. This sometimes creates a trend that makes it harder for Latinos to navigate and prepare for college.

Neither Medina’s older sister nor parents went to college, but she personally felt that she’d be wasting their sacrifices to give her a better life by not pursuing a degree.

Latinas are slightly more likely to go college than their male counterparts. Latino males are the least likely to go to college out of all gender and racial demographics, with a 29.7% college-going rate.

“I feel … we have this thing called machismo engrained in us. The male has to take responsibility for everybody in the house,” she adds. “So, a lot of times the male person is the oldest person, which feels like he has to take care of the family and earn money for the family.”

Another reason for the disparity, some higher education leaders say, is because a large number of the state’s unaccompanied minors are male Latinos. If they pursue post-secondary education, undocumented students have to pay out-of-state tuition at public colleges, even if they grew up in Tennessee.