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HETRICK: One-size higher-ed funding formulas do not fit all students

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Bruce Hetrick

I’m a failure. I’ve been a failure since 1980, when I left school 12 hours short of my bachelor’s degree.

By entering the work force before turning my tassel, I failed my state, our governor, the Legislature and the commissioner for higher education. I even failed the university that now employs me.

In Indiana, you see, we’re obsessed with on-time college graduation. Students absolutely must finish that bachelor’s in four years.

If they do, there are incentives and rewards.

If they don’t, the sky falls. The fiscal world ends. Our universities receive 39 lashings for failing to confer sheepskins on time.

Granted, the problem is legitimate. Indiana Public Media reported last August that “only 28 percent of Hoosier students pursuing a bachelor’s degree finish in four years. That puts Indiana 40th in the nation in on-time completion rate.”

The longer students take, the higher tuition climbs and the more debt many students and families accumulate. Speed matters.

By that standard, I screwed up. I landed a job before I graduated. The job was time-consuming. So it took me six years to finish my degree.

Now, the powers that be are slapping my wrist. I am shamed.

“We know Indiana can do better,” said then-candidate/now-governor Mike Pence in August 2012. “But it will take shared commitment from the state, our colleges and universities and from students and families themselves to get the job done.”

Oh, my. I let all these people down by choosing early work over timely degree.

“Pence proposes shifting more than $8 million from state financial aid funds to performance grants awarded to students who graduate on time,” reported Indiana Public Media. “He says he will engage colleges and universities by tying on-time graduation rates to some of the funding they receive from the state.”

Oh, no. I cost myself, my family and Indiana University money.

The news account said that, under the Pence plan, schools would have to provide students with road maps to on-time graduation.

But, but—what if my road map doesn’t show a detour to a full-time professional job dangled during my junior year? Must I be flogged? Must IU be punished for the transgression of my employment?

Apparently so.

“Indiana students aren’t well-served by the promise of college access without completion,” wrote Commissioner of Higher Education Teresa Lubbers in a recent opinion piece. “Taxpayers have a right to expect a better return on their investment.”

I’ve let down the taxpayers by becoming one before graduating. Oh, shame and guilt.

Fortunately, the remedies for problem children like me aren’t all negative. Indeed, as a counterpoint to punishing colleges for failing to graduate students on time, the state and schools themselves are dangling incentives.

The “Learn More Indiana” website shows that:

Ball State University offers a $500, on-time graduation scholarship for students who graduate in four years. BSU also reduced summer tuition.

Indiana State University guarantees that eligible students will be able to complete a bachelor’s degree within four years or get remaining courses tuition-free.

IU and the University of Southern Indiana also lowered summer tuition to encourage students to finish their degrees faster. IU announced a tuition freeze for students on schedule for on-time graduation.

Vincennes University offers a “Middle-Income Hoosier Scholarship” with tuition reductions each semester for income-qualified students with good grades, plus a $250 refund for students who graduate within five semesters.

Finally, there’s a bill in conference committee at the Indiana Statehouse that would provide even more carrots and sticks.

But here’s the rub: For every rule, there are exceptions.

The reason I did not graduate in four years was that the mayor of Fort Wayne hired me as his public information officer and speechwriter when I was halfway through the first semester of my senior year. I finished my degree two years later. My alma mater should not be punished for that.

My son Zach did not graduate in four years because he’d built a mid-five-figure photography business by the time he was a sophomore. After his junior year, he moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he’s worked for Nike, Macy’s, ESPN, Everlast and other clients. Zach’s university should not be punished for that.

Ryan Murphy, a creator of “Glee,” “American Horror Story” and other TV shows, left the IU School of Journalism just short of graduation. He’s one of the biggest names in Hollywood. His university should not be punished for that.

Finally, I now teach college students who put themselves through school by working one or more jobs. For many of them, completing a bachelor’s degree in four years is not an option. Yet they’re some of the most impressive, dedicated young people I’ve encountered.

Indiana should be proud of them. Their schools should not be punished for those students’ hard work and persistence.

Formulas are fine. But we need to recognize and accommodate exceptions.•

__________

Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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