Indiana was on the verge of creating a statewide community college system 40 years ago, but Hoosier politics and university turf wars got in the way-stomping a seed that in recent years has flourished in other states as a sort of economic tree of life.
Community colleges increasingly are called on to train new workers and retrain existing ones for a high-tech economy.
But the thinking back in the 1960s, said then-freshman legislator John Mutz, was that a community college system would be a drain on scarce resources. At least that’s the message Purdue University President Fred Hovde and Indiana University President Herman Wells sent at the time.
Mutz, who later went on to become Indiana’s lieutenant governor and now is chairman of the Lumina Foundation for Education, said administrators at the big universities feared a community college system would compete both for state funding and for prospective students.
The college presidents argued successfully for both an expansion of their regional campuses and funding for Indiana Vocational Technical College, what we know now as Ivy Tech.
Also lobbying for that plan was the AFL-CIO, Farm Bureau Co-Op and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Mutz recalled. Ivy Tech’s mission was to provide inexpensive worker training “where and when” it was needed in the business community.
Plans called for Ivy Tech facilities colocated at existing educational institutions around the state as a more efficient way to deliver services. But over time-thanks to political wheeling and dealing by the school and legislators all too happy to bring home a little pork-Ivy Tech got funding to construct nearly two dozen campuses statewide.
That wasn’t the only duplication. Many of IU’s and Purdue’s extended campuses mirrored Ivy Tech educational offerings
in two-year degrees and career training.
By the late 1990s, “community college services were not only highly fragmented and uncoordinated within each region but also [were] being delivered to a high degree by regional campuses and universities,” at costs and tuition, “that were inconsistent with the community college mission,” concluded a 2004 report for the Indiana Government Efficiency Commission.
That study recommended that IU’s and Purdue’s main campuses in Bloomington and West Lafayette focus more on graduate education and research, leaving their regional campuses to “pick up the slack” in baccalaureate education-and giving Ivy Tech the ability to become a true community college focusing on associate’s degrees and technical certificates.
The Indiana General Assembly made Ivy Tech the state’s official community college system in 2005.
Six years earlier, the state had tried to create a community college partnership between Ivy Tech and Vincennes’ University, which offers mostly two-year degrees. But that venture fizzled largely because of tensions between the schools in integrating programs.
Now that Ivy Tech is on track, it’s working to improve its graduation rate, which is about half the national average for community colleges.
But give it time, Mutz said.
“It’s a little unfair to critique Ivy Tech at this moment in its history,” he said. “We’re just in the process of building this thing in Indiana.”
One intriguing question emerging from Indiana’s relatively new community college system is what could have been if Indiana had adopted a system decades earlier, as have most other states.
“We’ve missed 40 years of history without community colleges,” said Stan Jones, commissioner of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.