Indiana improved college completion rate still lacking, officials say

Although Indiana’s statewide college completion rates continue to show improvement, education officials caution there aren’t enough Hoosiers earning degrees overall to meet the state’s workforce needs.

A final report released last week by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education showed the on-time college completion rate for 2021 graduates continued a five-year improvement trend. Extended-time college completion—which includes students finishing studies within six years for any degree type—also showed upward progress.

Still, the ICHE report emphasized the completion rate “is not nearly robust enough” to provide Indiana’s economy with the skilled talent it needs. Worse yet, some 350,000 Hoosiers have been to college but never earned a certificate or degree.

Overall, fewer Hoosier students are choosing a college path, and the state’s college-going rate is dropping—just over half of Indiana’s 2020 high school graduates chose to go to college. Five years ago, 65% of Indiana’s high school graduates pursued higher education.

The college-going dip puts billions of dollars on the line. Each class of Indiana public college graduates contributes $13 billion or more in spending and tax revenue to the state’s economy, according to the report.

“Yes, there has been improvement in these numbers over time, but the state’s overall education attainment is exacerbated by other challenges such as the declining college-going rate, a staggering number of adults without a credential beyond a high school diploma and too many college graduates leaving the state,” ICHE officials wrote in the report. “Indiana must continue to drive progress by getting more students to graduate in the most cost-effective manner.”

State officials have maintained 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, ICHE officials said.

“Indiana’s economy depends on and thrives with an educated society. Yet Indiana’s educational attainment is not close enough to where it needs to be. Employers are already struggling to find skilled talent. That search will only become more difficult if we do not increase the number of Hoosiers with the skills and training they need,” the report said. “We must further develop the connection between our labor force and education beyond high school, ensuring employers have access to talented Hoosiers to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow.

Completion rates for the class of 2022 are not yet available and can be expected in 2023.

The ICHE’s annual report measures how many learners complete their degree or certificate by campus, highlighting trends at each public institution, as well as statewide progress.

2021 completion rates continue to rise

At Indiana’s public institutions, 45.3% of all college students graduated on time last year, which means students who started college in fall 2017 graduated with a bachelor’s by 2021, or they completed a long-term certificate or associate degree within two years.

Around 44% of all Hoosier college students graduated on time in 2020, and 42% in 2019, according to the latest data.

Nearly two-thirds, or 66.1%, of all students completed college within six years. That’s an improvement of 2.5 percentage points from the previous cohort of students.

In addition to the yearly rate increases, the data show gains of almost 11 percentage points in on-time graduation since 2016. Extended-time college completion has jumped 12 percentage points in the same time frame.

ICHE officials said much of the credit is due to Indiana’s public institutions that are “moving the needle on student completion,” as well as Indiana’s lawmakers, “who have prioritized higher education funding to drive desired outcomes.”

The report specifically pointed to Indiana’s performance funding formula for public institutions that rewards colleges for improving student outcomes. The formula includes financial incentives to reward and support institutions’ efforts at graduating more of their students—and graduating more of them on time.

Some gaps still persist

Adult learner completion rates also saw an all-time high, with 42% of adult students earning a credential in six years—up 6.3% compared to the 2020 graduating class. There was a 1.5% drop in on-time completion in that same timeframe, however. Only 13.9% of adult students completed on time in 2021.

The on-time completion rate for Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars additionally showed higher graduation rates, according to the latest data.

Nearly 37% of students in the state’s early college promise program—which provides up to four years of tuition for income-eligible students—completed college on-time in 2021. Just 27% of low-income students who are not part of the 21st Century Scholars program achieved the same.

For the first time in recent history, more than 60% of Hispanic and Latino students graduated within the extended timeframe, according to the ICHE. The rate increased 4.5% from the year before, and by 13.7% compared to five years ago.

But while students across the board are completing college at a higher rate, adult learners, low-income and students from underrepresented populations are less likely to graduate on time than their peers across all campus types.

Regardless of institution type, on-time completion has never surpassed 25% for Black students. Extended-time completion for Black students has not surpassed 50%.

The preliminary ICHE report indicated that just 23.1% of Black students and 38.2% of Hispanic and Latino students graduated on time in 2021. About 27% of low-income students completed their studies on time, according to the report.

What ICHE recommends next

The ICHE outlined numerous recommendations, including a 35% increase to the Frank O’Bannon Grant amounts to bring the award back to 2008-09 levels, when adjusting for inflation.

The grant annually helps more than 30,000 Hoosiers afford postsecondary education and is available to students attending both public and private colleges.

Students who qualify for the 21st Century Scholars program should also be auto-enrolled, according to the recommendations. Too few students sign up for the program—less than half of eligible students currently enroll, ICHE officials noted.

The commission also called for increased availability of dual credit options for high schoolers, adding that the number of high school seniors earning the Indiana College Core by 2028 should be quadrupled. The 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.

Already, more Hoosier high schoolers than ever before have the option to earn college-level credit while still in secondary school. Indiana education officials have repeatedly said that could help boost the number of students who pursue some form of higher education.

The state’s overall education attainment has yet to 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%. That leaves a majority of Hoosier adults without a credential beyond a high school diploma.

Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Chris Lowery previously called the state’s lowest college-going rate in recent history “alarming.” State lawmakers and Indiana education officials say more needs to be done to get Hoosiers further educated.

In response, state officials this year have announced numerous new funding opportunities as part of a larger statewide push to get all Hoosiers better educated. That included an announcement in August that the Indiana Department of Education and the Lilly Endowment will together spend up to $111 million to improve reading outcomes in Indiana schools.

A separate statewide grant program announced in August 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.

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