Fall enrollment flat at Indiana public colleges, but long-term trend a concern

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Overall fall enrollment at colleges across the state of Indiana stayed about the same this year, but the number of students attending those schools over the last five to 15 years is on a downward slide.

That’s according to data released Thursday by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. The college attendance numbers reflect student enrollment at public institutions in Indiana at the start of each fall semester. The latest data captures enrollment numbers for the current academic year, which started in August.

Overall enrollment at public colleges and universities in Indiana increased 0.1% this fall, for a total of 239,943 degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate students. In 2021, the ICHE reported 239,799 students were enrolled in state schools.

Still, Indiana continues to struggle with low college attainment among Hoosiers.

Only half of Indiana’s 2020 high school graduates pursued some form of college education beyond high school, according to an ICHE report released earlier this year. The drop marked the state’s lowest college-going rate in recent history.

The state’s higher education officials point to overall college enrollment declines in Indiana that trend back more than decade. They opine the low enrollment has been caused by “numerous” factors. In the last two years, that largely includes the COVID-19 pandemic, which led many students to delay or steer away from college classes altogether.

Now, education officials are continuing to focus on how the state can meet Gov. Eric Holcomb’s goal of having at least 60% of adult Hoosiers with a quality degree or credential beyond high school by 2025. Currently, that number is just over 48%, leaving a majority of Hoosier adults without a credential beyond a high school diploma.

“[The state’s overall education attainment goal] is really to make our economy tick, and whether it’s those certificates, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s, PhDs — we’ve got to do better on each of those levels,” ICHE Commissioner Chris Lowery said Thursday during a commission meeting. “And part and parcel to that, it’s going to include the college going rate, how we’re working with and serving adults better, how we’re working to retain such incredibly talented graduates here in Indiana, and doing so in the most cost effective manner that I believe our institutions have already set the bar on.”

What the latest fall enrollment numbers show

The new ICHE data shows undergraduate headcounts in Indiana are down 0.1% this year from 2021.

In the last five years, the state’s public higher education institutions have seen a 12.1% dip in undergraduates, equal to 27,000 fewer students.

The number of resident students from Indiana is down even more, with 30,000 fewer undergraduates — 17% down from 2017. The metric accounts for 17,000 fewer Hoosier undergraduates attending an in-state, four-year public school.

At the same time, however, a greater number of non-resident undergraduates are attending Hoosier schools.

Compared to five year ago, Indiana public colleges and universities report 7% more students from different states or countries – that’s an increase of 3,000 undergrads. Non-resident graduate student numbers are also on the rise. Graduate student headcounts are up 18% since 2017, equal to 4,000 more degree-seekers.

Bucking the trend, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels noted during the ICHE meeting Thursday that the land grant university recorded a near-record high number of Hoosiers attending Purdue University West Lafayette this fall. Of the campus’ 50,884 students enrolled, 17,964 are Indiana students.

“We’ve worked very hard on this, despite the college going rate, unfavorable windage … We’ve been working on it, and we’re sailing — I think somewhat successfully — against that wind,” Daniels said.

But ICHE data indicates that Indiana’s other public colleges have “almost entirely” absorbed the statewide enrollment declines.

State officials maintain the increased drop is likely due to the lingering impacts of the pandemic, as well as the perceived cost of higher education, low unemployment rates, and a perceived low value of education beyond high school.

An ongoing challenge

Getting more Hoosiers educated has been an issue of increasing concern in recent months.

State officials maintain that people with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn 85% more per year than high school graduates. The longer college takes, however, the more it can cost, and the less likely it is a student will ever graduate, according to the ICHE.

To get more Hoosiers to college, the higher education commission recommended automatic enrollment for all eligible students into the 21st Century Scholars program, which provides up to four years of undergraduate tuition to income-eligible students at certain Indiana colleges or universities.

Currently, fewer than half of eligible students enroll in the program, despite its success – more than 80% of those who complete the program go to college.

The ICHE has also called for increased funding for state financial aid programs and requiring all high school seniors to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for financial aid.

The commission, along with the Indiana Department of Education, is additionally pushing for more Hoosier students to earn college credit while still in high school.

Lowery maintained that students who earn College Core credits are more likely to enroll in college and go on to earn degrees or technical certificates.

The Indiana College Core curriculum consists of a 30-credit-hour block of general education courses that transfer between all of Indiana’s public institutions and some private colleges.

A hopeful sign, this year, more Hoosier high schoolers than ever before have the option to earn those college-level credits while still in secondary school.

Lowery also commended a statewide grant program announced in August that will provide low-income Indiana families with funds to support tutoring for students who are struggling to recover from academic setbacks spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. He emphasized that increasing reading and literacy rates at the K-12 level

“Reading and literacy has taken a hit with the pandemic, but it did not start with the pandemic. This, similar to the college-going rate, has been a decline and a challenge for a long while,” he said, adding that the investment is putting dollars “where it really matters.”

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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8 thoughts on “Fall enrollment flat at Indiana public colleges, but long-term trend a concern

  1. Just replace 11th and 12th grade with community college for students who are literate and numerate. Y’know, kind of like how many highly-educated European countries do it. It would even save everybody money – full time tuition at Ivy Tech (without subsidized tuition) costs less than what the state pays for the average teenager to attend high school. And those entering university would already have one-two years of university done, limiting the need for debt.

  2. Restore the funding cuts made in 2009/2010 (the peak on the graph in the article) along with a mandate to accept more in-state students.

    Make more programs available that allow for college loans to be forgiven if a student stays in Indiana working for five years immediately post graduation. Heck, make college free if you stay in Indiana ten years.

    We have to try something or this state is sunk.

  3. Do we have any data on what the individuals are doing that are not enrolled in higher ed? Are they going into the trades or playing video games in mom’s basement?

    1. Not clear, Anthony. Then again, there’s growing evidence that the ones with Bachelors (and even Masters) degrees are playing video games in mom’s basement.

      I can’t imagine thinking college education is still a golden ticket. It isn’t. And it’s not just because it’s overpriced. The quality has deteriorated so much that if we reduced tuition to 1985 prices, it would still be too much.

      The notion that higher ed is a universal good that should only be amplified, and that the percentage with degrees should only grow, is not borne out by data in the cities that usually rank near the top for these metrics. San Francisco has an abundance of high-paying online tech jobs for geniuses. It also has people crapping on the sidewalks and can barely keep its Walgreens open, while it’s virtually impossible to find a home under $1M. Boston is a leader in biotech, but has a Methadone Mile, routine outbreaks in political violence, and is much closer to San Fran in cost-of-living than to, say, Raleigh or Indy. NYC is still the leader for NYSE listed companies (duh) but is hemorrhaging population–the state as a whole was #1 for population loss last year. Minneapolis St Paul is always a Midwestern leader…yet it hosted the worst riots in thirty years, with flare-ups even in the suburbs now and then.

      At a certain point, we have to ask ourselves: can the service-sector elite be overrepresented? Do we have too FEW high-school dropouts? Should lower ed become harder so that a simple H.S. degree still has the capacity to propel people to a middle class life through skilled trades, the way it did in 1950? I know we can’t turn back the clock but we can at least see what isn’t working now…and the notion of higher ed being a universal good, while the fed still pumps the industry full of money that higher ed uses for bureaucrats and plush dorms (rather than merit-based programs for gifted freshly minted academics) is clearly not a winning solution. Even Bachelors degrees aren’t landing people good jobs–but if you take out $150K of debt for comp lit or gender studies, what else can you do besides activism? And you can do that with a middle school education.

      Indiana’s comparatively low education rate isn’t necessarily going to hold it back much longer. The cities above are a case in point. We, the college educated, need to gorge on an enormous slice of humble pie. We aren’t all that.

  4. “State officials maintain that people with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn 85% more per year than high school graduates.” – Yeah but at what COSTS?? I’m honestly surprised enrollment isn’t worse. When 3/4 of college degrees are worthless why attend college? The debt isn’t worth it. I have friends making $70K+ per year with a high school diploma.

    1. Excellent points.

      I strongly suspect the 85% per year comes from a few lucrative, highly specialized degrees (occupational therapy, criminology, certain computer tech) and engineering and econ, which earn 150-200% more than high school graduates. The remaining 3/4 of Bachelors degrees earn the kiddos 0-40% more than high school grades, which isn’t enough to offset the exorbitant costs.

      College degrees should be an elite enterprise–not something 50% of the population holds. It just has no distinction and the value diminishes, yet somehow, the price tag grows each year well beyond the pace of inflation, even here during Jimmy Carter’s second term.

  5. Well, lets put up another warehouse…has anyone thougt that there could be a connection between a high school student on the fence seeing a billboard for $28.00 an hour right out of school with no college degree??? Maybe this is also why there is a shortage of workers in lots of industries.

  6. A question that wasn’t asked is: what programs were the in-state students admitted to? For instance, a high student from Indiana might gain admission to Purdue, but not to the engineering program. Purdue applicants have to select her 1st or 2nd choice program on the Purdue application (engineering, nursing, etc.). My point is that the in state numbers by themselves do not tell the complete story. The same questions should be asked of the IU Kelley programs. We should be proud of both programs but we should have this additional information. True story – local HS student, member of his school’s National Honor Society, etc. and met the priority application deadlines was not admitted to Purdue Engineering as an incoming freshman. He chose instead to go to an out of state university where he was admitted for engineering. Illinois residents have the same issues with certain U of I programs. Ask about the numbers or percentage of Kelley students from Illinois.