Ivy Tech Community College ranks first among two-year educational institutions nationwide for the number of associate degrees it awards, the college announced Monday.
However, Indiana's community college system, already grappling with a $68 million deficit, is facing scrutiny over its graduation rates as it works to shore up its role as the linchpin needed to close the state's skilled-worker gap.
Ivy Tech said an annual study by Community College Week ranked it tops in degrees conferred, with 8,940 awarded in the 2011-12 academic years, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year.
Despite the high number of degrees, many more students are failing to obtain the diploma in a desired amount of time, critics say.
Just 4 percent of students at Ivy Tech graduate within two years and only 23 percent earn diplomas in six years, according to state data. And that's making state officials wary of pumping more money into the system if the results don't improve.
"Is it a funding issue, or is it a completion issue?" said Marilee Springer, Gov. Mike Pence's senior policy director. "We can keep driving money in, but that money needs to lead to degree completion. I don't know if more funding is the answer."
Ivy Tech leaders dispute the calculations, saying the state only counts "first-time, full-time" students – which Ivy Tech administrators say is not representative of the student body.
Ivy Tech says it guides about half of its students toward "success" within six years — but that definition includes students who haven't completed degrees.
President Tom Snyder acknowledges that there's room for improvement and that Ivy Tech falls behind similar institutions across the country.
"Are we doing this as well as we can as a system?" Snyder asked. "No."
But he contends that reduced funding will translate into fewer degrees.
Ivy Tech plans to redesign remediation programs, create clearer paths to graduation and establish more one-year accelerated programs. The American Association of Community Colleges is also developing a "voluntary framework of accountability" to gauge community colleges' performances.
Education advocates say that's only a start.
"The first part of fixing a problem is, let's look at the problem we've got and not be defensive about it," said Cheryl Orr Dixon, senior vice president and chief of staff of Complete College America. "We are not patient with people who want to explain away data."
Complete College America and the Lumina Foundation, which found Indiana ranked last in six-year completion rates for students at public two-year institutions, both agree students are at a higher risk of dropping out if they take six years to finish a two-year degree. The groups support encouraging students to take full-time class loads when possible. That often means colleges need to make their classes available at better times.
"Some students perhaps need to go part-time, but going part-time is highly correlated with never finishing," said Jim Applegate, Lumina's vice president of strategic impact.
Snyder, the Ivy Tech president, said state leaders are ignoring the impact of funding on completion rates. Ivy Tech is considering closing a quarter of its facilities and is weighing administrative and staff layoffs to help close its $68 million budget gap.
"There's a lag in understanding both at the general assembly level in each state and at the federal level that I think will need to be addressed," he said.
Teresa Lubbers, Indiana's commissioner for higher education, said the numbers have to change.
"We're nowhere close to where we need to be with completion," Lubbers said. "I think all this means turning upside-down the delivery of education at the community college, based on not what the institution has been doing in the past but what the student needs now. These are stubborn numbers to move. We have to be willing to try multiple new ways to do this."