Ivy Tech boasts healthy enrollment, but most students wither on vine

April 23, 2007

Ivy Tech Community College has a much bigger problem than the angst lingering over last month's selection of its new president.

Indiana's most important career factory-charged with cranking out workers to fill highdemand jobs in critical occupations-has an output rate reminiscent of an old, state-owned Soviet assembly line.

Veteran auto-parts-manufacturing executive Thomas Snyder is taking over a community college system that graduates only about 12 percent of its students within three years, half the 24-percent national average for two-year public institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Results are even worse at the two Indianapolis campuses, where just 9 percent of those who enrolled in 2001 graduated in three years or less.

Further to the dismay of Indiana companies desperate for trained workers, about 70 percent of Ivy Tech's 105,500 students attend class part time, taking an average of five years to complete the requirements of a two-year associate's degree.

"Over the years, Ivy Tech has been rewarded for enrollment gains," said consultant Brian Bosworth, president of Belmont, Mass.-based policy firm FutureWorks and a former president of the Indiana Economic Development Council. "But they've not been rewarded for completion, in helping students get degrees or certifications."

Students' part-time pursuit of higher education is just one obstacle for Ivy Tech. Others include the remedial courses needed by nearly two-thirds of pupils, a course schedule inconvenient for many working adults, and a dearth of full-time faculty keeping students on track.

None of that is good news in a state already lagging its peers in the percentage of residents with college degrees--especially as officials look to Ivy Tech to help equip a New Economy work force for increasingly demanding jobs.

By some estimates, nearly 70 percent of new jobs through 2010 will require a degree of some kind, compared with about 50 percent of existing jobs. And employers increasingly will ask for training documentation such as a certificate, which often can be earned in less than a year.

"That's what has currency in the workplace," said Carol D'Amico, executive vice president of Ivy Tech and the No. 2 administrator behind retiring President Gerald Lamkin. "Employers tell us a degree or certificate does have currency."

And the alternative isn't pleasant.

"Relatively low post-secondary education participation and attainment rates present a major challenge to the long-term viability of Indiana's economy and its quality of life," University of Texas at Austin professors Byron and Kay McClenney wrote in their 2006 report, "Building a Strong Community College System for the State of Indiana: A Best Practices Study."

Snyder acknowledges the problem, but said progress already is evident thanks to a plan that calls for a 50-percent increase in graduation rates by 2010. Among the strategies: accelerated remediation, better class scheduling and new measures to monitor student progress.

And he's already started talking to chancellors at Ivy Tech's 23 campuses as they look for ways to better identify community needs, retain students and boost graduation rates.

"What can we do so [students] stay in the pipeline?" Snyder asked.

Historic struggle

Although the community college concept is fairly new in Indiana, two-year institutions in other states have long been a critical step between high school and what comes next--whether that's a job or more school.

Relatively open admission standards and affordable tuition make the nation's 1,200 community colleges a gateway of sorts for students exploring their options. Almost 40 percent are the first in their families to attend college, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Course offerings at the non-residential campuses tend to be geared to the business needs of the community, the goal being associate's degrees and technical certificates. Many colleges--including Ivy Tech--also offer expedited classes at work sites.

Community colleges typically have the flexibility to respond to the needs of changing industries. Ivy Tech, for example, introduced 20 degree programs in recent years, boosting the total to 150.

But while community colleges have been the preferred model for training and retraining an ever-changing work force, these institutions historically have struggled with retention and graduation rates.

Fewer than half of all community college students earn a degree or transfer to a four-year school within six years of enrolling, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Outcomes at community colleges in general is always an issue," said James Jacobs, associate director of Columbia University's Community College Research Center. "Ivy Tech graduation rates are certainly not very good, but they're in the ballpark of other community colleges."

Like many of its peers, Ivy Tech serves a disproportionately high number of students deemed at risk of failure: first-generation students, those who work more than 30 hours a week, single parents, and those who aren't academically prepared for college.

Barbara Ault of Lawrenceburg was ready for college, but she didn't have parental support to pursue her dream of getting a degree when she graduated.

She started a family shortly after high school and worked two jobs, squeezing in only one class at another college before transferring to Ivy Tech six years ago.

Now 54, Ault will graduate next month from Ivy Tech with an associate's degree in administration--the same time the youngest of her four children graduates from Vincennes University.

"It has taken me 10 years to get it," said Ault, executive director of the Dearborn County Solid Waste Management District.

Still, she earned a 3.8 grade point average and found time to participate in Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society. Ault was one of 60 students nationwide named to the All-USA Community College Academic Team.

Her message to other community college students: "Never give up your dream."

Even so, some other students simply don't want to earn a degree. Columbia researchers said one-third just want to learn enough to advance in their current jobs or jump to the bottom rung of new careers. But some observers say workers no longer can take a few night classes and expect a payoff.

"The workplace is credential-oriented today," said Bosworth, the Ivy Tech consultant. "With one year, plus a credential, there's economic return" for a student's investment in education.

And Ivy Tech is a key piece of Gov. Mitch Daniels' economic development plan as the initial gateway for students--especially adults--to get additional training in current careers or retrain for new ones.

The state's "Accelerating Growth" plan, unveiled last year by the Daniels administration as a framework for growing the state's economy, said Ivy Tech needs to quickly develop customized worker training for employers and improve its completion rates--in part by offering accelerated degree and certificate programs for working adults.

"No company should ever decline to expand in, or relocate to, Indiana due to the lack of qualified workers," the report said.

The school, which officially became a community college in 2005, has seen state funding increase 22 percent since the Republican Daniels took office in 2005.

In a legislative proposal for the next biennial budget, Ivy Tech's state funding would increase about 6.4 percent, to $153.2 million, while Indiana's other public universities would get just 2.5 percent more.

Change is in the air, to be sure.

"We haven't had a statewide community college in Indiana, and it has put the state at a disadvantage relative to other states that do," said Neil Pickett, a senior adviser to the governor.

Remediation challenge

One major problem for Ivy Tech is that many incoming students didn't take high school seriously--or haven't seen the inside of a classroom for decades.

Nearly two-thirds of students need some sort of remediation, even basic writing or math skills. Some need several semesters just to reach the point where they can get started on an associate's degree.

"If that's what a college becomes, they're going to say, 'I'm out of here,'" said consultant Bosworth.

To combat that reality, Ivy Tech is trying to slash remediation time from months to weeks. Bosworth said a team of experts from around the country has been working on the issue for two years.

One of the solutions is to better identify what remediation is necessary so time isn't wasted on areas in which that student is competent. And in some cases, remediation will be embedded within basic skills training during occupational programs.

But hundreds of thousands of potential students are years removed from high school. Indiana has 975,000 adults who lack basic skills, according to the University of Texas researchers, and they recommended that Ivy Tech do more to engage them.

"A critically important role for Ivy Tech is to attract incumbent workers, particularly those who are underskilled, into postsecondary education," their report said.

Community colleges in other states do a lot more, to be sure. The Ohio Department of Education's Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education oversees a program offered by a community college and literacy providers there, for example. And North Carolina's community college system was given responsibility for all adult basic education in the state.

In Indiana, high schools typically receive funding to help adults master basic skills, although experts say many workers are reluctant to go back to high schools they believe failed them to begin with.

"In Indiana, the most feasible approach to expand the role of community colleges would be to create a provision in state statute that would allow Ivy Tech regions, along with other providers, to receive funding designated for adult basic education," the Texas study said.

One partial solution, at least for workers who never graduated, may be the "fast-track" program enacted by the Legislature almost two years ago. Recent high school dropouts can earn diplomas at Ivy Tech while working on a certificate program or associate's degree. The students' high schools pay for the non-college courses.

The hope is that students are not only more inclined to finish high school and master basic skills, but that they will be more inclined to finish college because they've eased into the college campus setting and are less likely to become intimidated by it.

Time will tell.

"The fast-track program will work well for students who are focused on college attainment and motivated to complete classes," said Hank Dunn, chancellor of Ivy Tech Central Indiana. "Anything that acclimates students to the college experience and helps them understand that it is possible to attend college will be good for Indiana."

Speeding completion

Getting students prepared for college-level studies is just part of Ivy Tech's battle. Once that happens, the school must do more to move them through the programs fast enough to keep them interested.

Ivy Tech's traditional 16-week semesters make that a challenge.

The state's "Accelerating Growth" report recommended Ivy Tech take a page from the playbook of private institutions like ITT Technical Institute and Indiana Wesleyan University and make its programs more convenient for working adults.

"As Indiana's community college, Ivy Tech should work aggressively to offer modularized, compressed and accelerated degree and certificate programs for working adults," the report said.

This fall, Ivy Tech will unveil a college for working adults, D'Amico said. The current 16-week semester will be cut in half, and schedules will be published far in advance. Online instruction will further reduce the amount of time students must spend on campus.

"A lot of our students have jobs. They have two jobs," D'Amico said. "They have families."

Ivy Tech also has been introducing more flexible class schedules that would allow a student to complete a course in as little as four weeks. Students could opt, for example, to take four, four-week classes in one academic semester.

One advantage of that schedule is that a busy student could focus on just one course at any given time. Also, if work or family issues arise during a given period, the student need only make up one course later, rather than several.

Snyder said such non-traditional programs will need to be widely promoted.

University of Texas researcher Byron McClenney, who served as president or chancellor of five community colleges over 33 years, has another idea to speed completion: paid, for-credit internships.

The credit would count toward graduation, and the money could help students afford to take a fuller course load to further hasten their progress. While many employers clamor for graduates now, "the reason many students can't [finish] is they have financial issues," McClenney said.

And industries in desperate need of workers could help with such partnerships. In some states, such as North Carolina, state government has created paid internships for undergraduates, including some for community college students. The internships also can provide experience to make students more competitive after graduation.

"I like the concept of internships," said president-elect Snyder. "I do not know if internships would speed up the completion rate, but I do believe they are a nice element of the learning processes for our students."

Blindsided by success

Ironically enough, the problems undermining Ivy Tech--and potentially slowing the state's economic development initiatives--have been obscured by its successes.

Proving its flexibility in generating a proliferation of new courses to meet needs in industries from logistics to advanced manufacturing, Ivy Tech has been launching new degrees in recent years.

Just last month, it rolled out associate's degree programs in agriculture, pointing to a goal by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture for massive growth in food-related industries by 2025.

Many of the new programs, including agriculture, health industry information and logistics, also have been designed to allow students to transfer to bachelor's degree programs at Purdue University.

With help from industry and economic development leaders, the school was key in rolling out degree and certification programs for 13 occupations in central Indiana most in need of workers, said Joanne Joyce, president of the Indianapolis Private Industry Council.

"Ivy Tech has the ability to train in a lot of occupations for folks that are already employed or they're not necessarily going in for a four-year degree," she said.

The 44-year-old Ivy Tech also appears healthy by measure of enrollment growth--its 105,500-member student body has grown about 70 percent in the last decade.

Community College Week ranked Ivy Tech's central Indiana campus as the nation's fastest-growing community college among institutions with at least 10,000 students--with enrollment up 23 percent, to 14,000, from 2003 to 2004.

For many years, "community colleges, and us as a new community college, were so focused on access that we didn't focus [as much] on the success part of it," Dunn said. But "if we get you in the door but we don't get you out, it's not going to do you any good."

There have been other distractions, too.

Just last month, Ivy Tech board members--some appointed by Daniels and some by his Democratic predecessor--chose Snyder to lead the community college, shunning D'Amico, the governor's pick to succeed retiring Ivy Tech President Gerald Lamkin.

D'Amico has been the No. 2 Ivy Tech administrator since 2005. A former assistant education secretary under President Bush and co-author of the Hudson Institute's Workforce 2020 education manifesto, she was considered a shoo-in for Lamkin's job.

Now it's not clear whether D'Amico and the reforms she began to improve student outcomes will continue--despite the ongoing challenges.

"Ivy Tech's graduation and retention rates are not good enough. They know that as well as anybody," Pickett said, adding that under D'Amico's leadership the school put in place a strategy to address the problems.

Indeed, student retention is another problem, contributing to the more striking low graduation rates. In recent years, just 46 percent of full-time freshmen returned the following fall semester, compared with a national average at community colleges of 54 percent, according to a 2004 report from the Indiana Government Efficiency Commission's Subcommittee on Higher Education.

Student retention "is mostly a product of good teaching, careful career counseling, clear educational objectives, smart course sequencing and accelerated programming," said Bosworth, the consultant.

Ivy Tech officials are loath to make a connection between low completion rates and the mostly part-time faculty--especially since part-time faculty bring real-world experience to the classroom from their full-time jobs.

But Chancellor Dunn acknowledged that Ivy Tech plans to boost central Indiana's full-time faculty closer to 40 percent within five years; it's about 34 percent in Indianapolis today.

There are even fewer full-timers systemwide: Just 21 percent--943 of Ivy Tech's 4,470 faculty--teach full time. Officials said that percentage is actually up 34 percent since 2001.

Community college challenge

The McClenney report recommends that Ivy Tech shoot for half of its faculty to work full time. It also says the school should strive to graduate at least 29 percent of its associate's degree students within three years, which is akin to the rate at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Yet community college administrators around the country say it isn't that simple.

Last year, Massachusetts legislators and state officials were alarmed when federal data showed that just 16.4 percent of full-time community college students there finished within three years.

"None of these numbers are acceptable. Anything under 50 percent is unacceptable," an unhappy Stephen Tocco, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, told the Boston Globe.

Community college administrators from Roxbury to Bunker Hill said such rates aren't always realistic as long as their institutions are fundamentally a catch-all for students not prepared for four-year institutions.

One complained that her community college would have to adopt a selective admission process--essentially upending the very concept of the community college's open-to-all mission.

Back home in Indiana, Ivy Tech President-Elect Snyder said the school's overall graduation rate improved about 10 percent in 2006 over the previous year--in part due to the 2010 plan reforms. The graduation rate among full-time students improved 20 percent, he said.

"It's clear that the college correctly is making it one of their top objectives," Snyder said.

What Ivy Tech is attempting "is a culture change for the state," he said, noting historically low post-secondary accomplishment in Indiana.

State's workers lag

Indeed, the state ranks 35th for the share of its over-25 population with an associate's degree--and 47th in the bachelor's degree category.

"Indiana is in the company of Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia, none of which are reputed for their intellectual or academic strength," central Indiana business and work force executives wrote in "Strategic Skills Initiative Root Causes," a 2005 report for the state Department of Workforce Development.

Nor are Hoosiers trying to advance in droves. The state ranked 34th in part-time enrollment in post-secondary programs among those age 30 and older. And by some estimates, half of those who do go to college leave the state after graduation.

Unfortunately, recruiting workers from out of state is not a viable option. Many bioscience and other companies in need of entry-level workers generally aren't going to recruit heavily from out of the area.

"It's a regional labor market ... you have to produce these people locally," said consultant Bosworth.

Relocation costs are expensive and outof-state recruits more transient, agreed Peter Kissinger, CEO of West Lafayettebased Bioanalytical Systems Inc., a contract medical-research firm at Purdue Research Park.

"It helps us to get people who are local," Kissinger said.

Kissinger is a big believer in Ivy Tech, which for the last several years helped train dozens of his workers. "What we often look for is something between high school and a PhD."

Not everyone can or should pursue a bachelor's degree, he said.

"At the end of the day, we make a mistake if we don't take vocational education seriously," Kissinger said.

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