Big 10, Big Problem

Low college attainment puts our state at a serious disadvantage

By Thomas J. Snyder, President
Ivy Tech Community College

For many of us, the phrase “Big 10” brings to mind the spirited competition that comes with college sports. It may make us think of rivalries on basketball courts and football fields that have endured decades, tied to our pride in an alma mater or family traditions. However, there is a much more serious competition among the Big 10 states that is threatening Indiana’s economic vitality, and what’s at stake is much more serious than the outcome of a game.

According to a recently-released report from the Lumina Foundation, just 34.4 percent of Indiana’s 3.4 million working-age adults ages 25-64 have earned a college degree. As a result, Indiana is now 41st, or ninth worst in the U.S. in college attainment and—most alarmingly—the state ranks last among the Big 10 states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). This standing in the Big 10 represents a big problem for Indiana—perhaps the greatest challenge we face, in fact.

There are several good reasons to compare Indiana with these states. Just as with NCAA sports, it’s where the real competition is. When it comes to jobs and skilled workers, these states represent our greatest rivals. And right now, the score isn’t even close. Minnesota, for example, ranks second among U.S. states in terms of college attainment. Illinois is 16th. Even Michigan, a state with well-documented fiscal challenges, is better positioned for a comeback with 37 percent college attainment—ranking 10 spots higher than Indiana.

What’s even more troubling is the trend that has led to this position—and what’s at stake if it isn’t reversed. Indiana’s 34.4 percent college attainment level is only an improvement of one percent against 2008 data. And we have not moved the needle much at all in the last four decades.  More to the point, it’s far too inadequate to get Indiana to the 60 percent college attainment level by 2025 identified by the Lumina Foundation as necessary of us to compete in the global economy. At our current pace, in fact, Indiana would only reach 41.1 percent college attainment by 2025.

There’s one unmistakable takeaway from this data: Indiana is at a critical juncture. We must choose whether we’re satisfied with remaining in the Big 10 cellar or if we’re ready to compete at a different level. If the latter is our chosen course—as I certainly believe it should be—we must start now, and focus on the efforts most likely to make the greatest difference in the shortest amount of time. Accordingly, as we look to rapidly rebuild, Ivy Tech Community College must be one of Indiana’s highest priorities.

Why Ivy Tech? Closing Indiana’s college attainment gap will require thousands of new college graduates, and as a provider of career-relevant associate degrees and certificates, Ivy Tech is uniquely able to get workers trained quickly in the areas where they are needed most. Consider that for every one job requiring a master’s degree, there are two jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree and more than six jobs requiring a one-year certificate or two-year degree—the very credentials provided by Ivy Tech. Simply put, no one is better positioned to train a critical mass of the workforce.  We just completed a school year with a record number of graduates, but we know we still need to do much more.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that we won’t be able to accommodate and graduate nearly enough additional students without additional resources. The first step we’ve taken is a series of initiatives during my tenure that have resulted in $124 million in savings. However, we also have identified that a funding gap of more than $83 million still exists, which we believe must be resolved by additional state funding and private giving, not increases in student tuition and fees. Another reason Ivy Tech is so well positioned to serve a critical mass of students is that the College makes higher education uniquely accessible and affordable. Raising tuition and fees would limit access and more than offset any advantages from the revenue it would generate.

Unfortunately, there’s something preventing Ivy Tech from serving as this catalyst for workforce growth. For the past 40 years, Indiana’s investment in Ivy Tech has remained somewhat stagnant even as our enrollment has increased rapidly—including growth of approximately 60 percent since I was appointed president in 2007. Currently, Ivy Tech funding per full-time equivalent student is the lowest of all Indiana’s public colleges and just one tenth that of our most well-funded institution. This remains true even as we have documented unprecedented success in credentials awarded, dual credits earned by high school students, and student transfers, to name just a few. However, the reality of limited resources is beginning to take its toll. Our student/advisor ratio is 1:1,200—far removed from a more ideal 1:250 ratio. We continue to have a disproportionate reliance on part-time faculty, with just 23 percent of our faculty being full time—far below a much more workable 50/50 ratio. While our faculty and staff do phenomenal work, it’s clear that our limited resources are inhibiting Ivy Tech from ensuring that even more students reach their goals.

All of this leaves us with a choice: do we do nothing, content to remain at the bottom of the Big 10 states? Or do we make the bold decisions that will position us for future success? It is certain that the cost of taking action will be significant. Even more significant, however, is the cost of doing nothing at all. Let’s turn things around. Let’s turn our Big 10 big problem into a big opportunity for Indiana’s future.

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