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PARCA study shows Alabama’s college-going rate’s continued downward trend

Four-year college attendance held steady while two-year attendance dropped 4 percent.

A graph shows the downward trend of college-going among the state's high school graduates. (Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama)

Only 54 percent of graduating seniors in 2020 enrolled in college in the 2020-2021 school year, according to a recent study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama.

The percentage of college-going students has steadily declined over the past seven years, falling 10 percent since 2014.

The percentage of high school students graduating has risen overall during that span, creating a larger pool of graduates but also a larger portion not continuing on to college. 

The percentage of students going on to four-year universities actually has held strong despite the pandemic, holding steady at 30 percent from the previous two years. 15,183 Class of 2020 graduates, or 30 percent, enrolled at a four-year school. That was despite the online classes and pandemic-related restrictions. That was down slightly in numeric terms, 193 students down from the 2019 total. It was down only slightly in percentage terms because the number of high school graduates was down as well.

Enrollment in the Alabama Community College System, however, has dropped precipitously in the past two years from 32 percent in 2018 to 28 percent in 2019 to just 24 percent in 2020.

The declining enrollment at community colleges is a national trend.

ACCS officials said that because high school students didn’t finish the 2020 school year physically present at school, two-year colleges missed a traditional window for recruiting students. Applications for federal financial aid (FAFSA) were down significantly, as well. With students away from school, k-12 counselors and community college representatives were unable to make a final push for completion. The resources the FAFSA process unlocks often are a deciding factor for students as to whether they can afford to attend.

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Only 10 percent of college-going students left the state to pursue a degree and 91 percent attended a public university.

The PARCA study emphasized the importance of college attainment.

“Alabama has set a goal of improving its level of educational attainment,” the study reads. “Producing college and career-ready graduates and propelling them into advanced technical training or toward college degrees is a key priority. The labor market is increasingly demanding higher levels of training and education. Higher levels of educational attainment are associated with higher incomes, lower unemployment, better health, and longer life.”

The report also highlights patterns in the data.

  • Magnet schools and suburban school systems send higher percentages of students to four-year colleges. 
  • Some rural and non-metro counties and systems achieve high college-going rates based on high enrollment in the local community college.
  • Rural counties isolated from population centers and urban high schools in high poverty neighborhoods tend to have the lowest college-going rates.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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