The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted two school years at this point, and while restrictions are loosening in the 2021-22 school year due to rising vaccination rates, indicators of the pandemic's impression on students remain.
Despite that, college graduation rates rose in 2020. According to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE), more than 44 percent of college students were graduating on time — an increase of more than two percentage points from 2019. A June 24 press release also said in the past five years, there has been an improvement in graduation rates at both two and four-year universities in Indiana.
“Completing college is the foundational marker of college success, and we’ve been intentional about improving this rate for many years,” Teressa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education, said in the press release. “It is encouraging to see the Class of 2020 finished strong, despite the turmoil that was going on last spring. However, we cannot ease our momentum in making sure that Indiana’s students are fully prepared to enter and complete postsecondary education.”
In the same five years that saw an increase in college graduation rates, ICHE reported a percentage drop in high school graduates enrolling in two- or four-year universities. The rate of college-aged student enrollment is now at 59 percent, a decline of six percentage points from the last five years.
Lubbers said she thinks people are questioning the value of higher education in general, while Jane Beilke, Ball State professor of secondary and foundations of education, said it could be a combination of different reasons, including recent economic changes.
“I think you have to look at the context. In Indiana, Ivy Tech is making strategic choices to lower tuition and costs. Therefore, more students are opting to start college there instead of a four-year institution,” Beilke said via email. “In addition, students are waiting to see whether or not the federal government will do anything to alleviate the pressure of student loans, which can be crippling.”
The state of Indiana has launched programs aimed at helping students earn postsecondary credits and increasing overall enrollment such as the “Crossing the Finish Line” initiative, which is dedicated to helping students this summer earn credentials through Ivy Tech and Vincennes University. There is also the “Bridging the Gap” initiative, which will aid enrollment in Ivy Tech by providing resources for students to meet math and English college-readiness benchmarks without taking out too much in student loans.
An April 22 ICHE press release said more Indiana students are getting industry certifications so they can get an apprenticeship and or work in a trade. The overall goal of ICHE programs and the state of Indiana is for 60 percent of Hoosiers to have a quality education or training past the high school level by 2025.
“We cannot overlook the persistent questioning of the value of higher education as a factor in Indiana’s college-going decline,” Lubbers said. “Hoosiers with education beyond high school were less likely to be unemployed in the aftermath of the economic upheaval that took place last year. Our challenge and opportunity must focus on increasing the higher education value proposition to Hoosiers, while ensuring students are ready and able to access it.”