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Indiana Community Colleges Grapple With Low Graduation Rates

INDIANAPOLIS – Students in Indiana’s community colleges face significant hurdles in their quest for a diploma, and education leaders say the state needs to address those challenges to secure its economic future.

Indiana’s college-completion rate is the nation’s 22nd best, with a 31 percent on-time completion rate for four-year colleges and a 55 percent rate for six-year completion.

But the state’s two-year community colleges are ninth-worst in the nation, with a 14 percent completion rate for students who typically juggle jobs, children and coursework and often drop out because they cannot afford their classes.

Janna Mendez is one such dropout – she didn’t last even one semester at Ivy Tech.

The 22-year-old Indianapolis resident said she didn’t realize how expensive her classes would be even as she worked two jobs to pay for them.

“I was unable to get a loan without a co-signer,” she said. “I worked two jobs, and college is expensive. Knowing that I was paying for it all on my own made it harder.”

Community colleges in other states are viewed as stepping stones to four-year campuses. But in Indiana they have been viewed more as technical schools teaching trades and therefore attract different types of students.

Indiana’s community college officials said their students’ backgrounds and situations help account for the high dropout rate; many are working adults with spouses and children. And often they are first-generation college students.

“We are dealing with different demographics,” said Ivy Tech President Tom Snyder.

About 80 percent of Ivy Tech’s 130,000 students statewide work – and nearly all of those work more than 30 hours a week, he said. Half of the college’s students have children, 25 percent are single mothers and about 10,000 of Ivy Tech students are on food stamps.

As a result, although Ivy Tech’s enrollment has shattered records the past two years, its graduation rate ranges from a high of 14 percent at some campuses to a low of 5 percent at the central Indiana campus in Indianapolis.

Snyder said those percentages are based on a standard of completing a two-year degree in three years. He thinks Ivy Tech students should focus on a six-year plan to better reflect the circumstances of their lives.

At Vincennes University, Indiana’s other two-year public college, only 24 percent of students graduate. Vincennes President Dr. Richard Helton thinks the school could be doing more to help its “nontraditional” students graduate.

“We’ve tried to understand from where our students are coming, and we address those issues as they come to us,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education announced it would join 16 other states in a new national initiative to raise college completion rates.

The effort is led by Stan Jones, Indiana’s former higher education commissioner, who has started Complete College America, a nonprofit working to raise the number of adults with college degrees.

Indiana’s higher education commissioner, Teresa Lubbers, calls the community college percentages “unacceptably low.”

“We have been so focused on college access, and we are doing well, but our completion numbers don’t reflect that same degree of success,” she said. “Everything we can do to focus on these numbers will be key to Indiana’s economic future.”

The top reason given by college dropouts in a recent Public Agenda report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was the need to go to work and make money – 71 percent of dropouts interviewed nationwide left college because of financial concerns.

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