Rate of Indiana high school students headed to college drops to 53%

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The number of Indiana high school students who are heading to college has fallen to 53%, a significant drop after years of declining enrollment, according to data released by state officials in a Thursday morning meeting.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education data is for the state’s 2020 high school class, the first to graduate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data shows the college-going rate has dropped 6 percentage points over the last year—12 percentage points lower than five years ago—with widening gaps for students of color and students from low-income families.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused drops in college enrollment, but the commission stressed that enrollment saw a decline even before then. The commission cited the perceived cost of higher education and low unemployment rates as possible factors in the continued decline.

“I want to make clear, though, that we cannot just blame this on the pandemic,” Sean Tierney, ICHE associate commissioner for policy and research, said at the meeting.

Dhanfu Elston, chief of staff and senior vice president for strategy at Complete College America, said a competitive job market often can force students to reconsider higher education plans.

“Whenever a student can potentially get a job paying well beyond minimum wage, in some cases, double and triple that amount, it’s going to make them rethink everything,” Elston said.

In order for higher education institutions to see students return, they will have to emphasize the long-term benefits, Elston added.

“There’s also this recognition that institutions don’t always do well, especially for minoritized populations—under-resourced students, first-generation students, rural students, community colleges—in letting them know: This is what you can do. These are the careers. Here’s the demand in our particular field.”

While college enrollment has decreased across the nation, Indiana’s college-going rates have fallen further than most states. Currently, the college-going rate nationwide is 63%, with Indiana trailing 10 percentage points behind. 

The college-going rate among Black students in Indiana fell by 7 percentage points, meaning the group now has the lowest college-going rate by ethnicity at 43%. Hispanic and Latino students’ college-going rate also dipped considerably, with a 6 percentage point decrease to 44%. The trends also fell more steeply among low-income students, where only about 1 in 3 high schoolers pursues higher education. However, 81% of the 2020 class of 21st Century Scholars, a program that pays some or all of the tuition for lower-income students, are going to college.

The education attainment rates in Indiana–working-age adults who have completed some form of higher education–are also low when compared to national averages. The state has set a goal for 60% of the adult population to complete some form of higher education by the year 2025, but currently Indiana stands at just 48% according to the Lumina Foundation.

The report revealed that in 2020, 61% of women went to college while only 46% of men did. This is the first time in recent years where less than 50% of men sought some form of higher education. In keeping with national trends, the gender gap in higher education in Indiana has widened over the last 10 years.

“Men, in many cases, are working to try to figure out how do they support their families,” Elston said. “In many cases, the opportunities and the disparities in wages between men and women allow for more men to see opportunities than for women.”

Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Chris Lowery said the data was startling and pushed the board to consider the next steps to increase higher education enrollment.

“Indiana’s sharp one-year college-going decline is alarming, and we have to treat it as such,” Lowery said in a statement Thursday morning. “We know individual lives and the state’s economy depend on and thrive with an educated society,”

A study presented by the commission found that while the majority of Hoosiers still feel favorably toward higher education, there are negative views motivated by its perceived cost. Currently, higher education is most frequently associated with four-year bachelor’s degrees, leaving out associate degrees and trade school certificates.

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave an outdated figure for Indiana’s higher education attainment rate.

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8 thoughts on “Rate of Indiana high school students headed to college drops to 53%

  1. As a father of a graduating senior, I think many kids see multiple opportunities available to them that don’t come with a mountain of debt. Whether college, trades, military, or just taking a gap year, there are many accepted pathways to success nowadays. It is articles like this that keep the fake narrative alive that college is the only/best pathway to success. Until these liberal institutions rethink their ROI statement, we will continue to see other alternatives offered and gaining popularity.

    1. College IS too expensive in many cases. But is a gap year really a pathway to success? Please. The military is a noble choice and, for some, it can turn into a solid financial decision in the long run. Trades are totally solid. I don’t know anyone that thinks college is the only pathway to success. You’re overstating the point. But go right ahead and cheer on a falling rate of college attendance. This is Indiana, after all!

  2. Good – there is over a trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt thanks to the false idea that a college degree is for everybody and 2nd and 3rd rate schools letting in loads of leveraged up but underqualified students in, which is used to fund the bloated administrative ranks. It would be a net plus for our society if higher ed went through some major pain and was forced to cut useless jobs and degrees and more high school graduates sought out alternative paths for careers.

  3. $1.75T to be more exact. That’s TRILLION dollars. Given the state of the economy, ridiculous cost of tuition, and good available jobs right now I wouldn’t even glance at colleges if I was a high school senior. A gap year = the ROI of attending college isn’t there anymore.

    1. I too challenge the author’s concern that a traditional college degree is the only way to judge growth & success. I personally encourage many youths who are talented “do-ers” (as opposed to book learners) to find a skilled Trade and join an apprentice program, thus *making money* while they learn increasingly valuable job skills. Not everyone needs a mountain of college debt and a middle management career. Folks don’t generally know that many union apprentice programs provide enough training to earn an Associates degree upon graduating to Journeyman. Additionally, we have such a massive shortage of skilled workers, that their earnings keep rising. (Ask any Electrician, Operator, or HVAC technician!) There is great honor and respect in working with one’s hands. It’s frustrating to read opinion articles diminishing that.

      I am enthused that the IEDC is working hard to bring growth to Indiana. However, I challenge the “College is the only way” crowd: Who do you think will be relied upon to physically build all these new technology complexes?

    2. Southern states are exploding with economic development expansions.
      I seriously doubt their educational system was or is any better than ours.
      In fact Southern states had weaker K through 12 educational systems than the
      Northern states for a very long time. But it hasn’t stop them
      from attracting major economic expansions.

  4. In my opinion, higher education (generally-speaking) has not been innovative enough to meet the needs of post-secondary students. They embrace that learning is lifelong, but still seem to want it to take place in the same square sequences and formats that they have always offered. Yes, most seems to be pursuing online offerings. But, that often seems to be the only change in format. They need more flexibility, more relevance, more real-world application, and to be much much cheaper. There will always be a place for brick and mortar campuses, but they aren’t needed to the extent they once were. So, why do we as a state keep funding them the way we always have. Additionally, they are expensive. Why don’t they sell continuous learning subscriptions to individuals and employers? Also, they need to issue credentials that aren’t as stodgy and obtuse as degrees, but are more relevant and therefore just as meaningful as traditional degrees. Also, we don’t need as many of them. Take a look at the outcomes data of some of our state schools, and you should be furious! With notable exceptions, on-time completion, and salaries post graduation are pitiful. Each school has a story to tell, and some sort of success story or successful program or field. Fine. Then why don’t they take an axe to that which they are perennially failing at? Bottom line: they need to be more innovative, or else they deserve the disruption that’s taking place. They shouldn’t forget that the need for higher education is not the same as higher education as an institution.

  5. Which article did most of you read? with comments like “I challenge the author’s concern that a traditional college degree is the only way to judge growth & success.” and “It is articles like this that keep the fake narrative alive that college is the only/best pathway to success.”

    This article provides statements and statistics, yes some of the statements are from the ‘Commission for Higher Education’ and of course they are pushing for more students to pursue post-secondary degrees. I agree that tuition and fees at state Universities are too high for most people to afford, and I think it’s agreed that some restructuring is needed.

    However, the lack of ability for most of the folks here to process this information without seeing as a binary choice (yes/no, good/bad, black/white) or turning it into a negative attack on people who work in higher education is sad. Could it be possible that the high tech jobs need more education? Could it be that the ‘southern states’ bring in big manufacturing plants by giving huge tax incentives to global companies only to learn that the employees with only a HS diploma aren’t making enough to raise a young family a few years later?

    Could it be that our K-12 education system has failed to prepare the people who don’t succeed in attaining a degree, which resulted in drop-out and debt without ROI?