News and Tribune

Education/Schools

May 4, 2014

College degrees up, but Indiana still lags behind

The state has show improvement, but still ranks in the bottom 10

INDIANAPOLIS — The percentage of Hoosiers with a college diploma has gone up over the last five years, but Indiana still remains among the least-degreed states in the nation.

According to a degree-tracking study recently released, just over 34 percent of Indiana’s 3.4 million working-age adults hold a two- or four-year college degree — significantly below the national average of more than 39 percent.

The good news, according to report authors, is that Indiana — along with other states — is undergoing a cultural shift that places increased value on a college degree.

The bad news: The state has a long way to go toward increasing the number of at-risk students — including those first in their family to go to college —who complete a degree program before dropping out.

“There is a dramatic increase in the number of Americans who are saying that success, in some form of post-secondary education, has become essential, not just to individuals, but to the nation,” said  DeWayne Matthews, vice-president of strategy development for the Lumina Foundation, which issued the report.

The Lumina report, “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education,” is the organization’s fifth annual survey to show national and state-by-state figures on college attainment.

Thirty-eight states, including Indiana, have signed on to Lumina’s big goal of increasing the percentage of Americans with post-secondary degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025.

Progress is slow: While Indiana has increased its college grads every year since 2008, it remains in the bottom 10 states for college attainment.

Massachusetts has the highest percent of degreed citizens, at just over 50 percent. West Virginia ranks at the bottom, with just shy of 28 percent.

Indiana has been aggressive in its efforts to up its numbers. Among other initiatives, the General Assembly has tied a portion of state funding for public colleges and universities to those institutions’ graduation rates. That performance-based funding mechanism came after studies showed the number of Indiana students admitted to college was going up, but graduation rates weren’t keeping pace.

In turn, the percentage of Indiana adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a degree has risen to 38 percent. That’s up from years past, but still below the national rate of almost 41 percent.

“The trends are positive but the speed in which we’re achieving them is not adequate,” said Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers.

Of particular concern to Lubbers are the numbers that show Indiana’s minority populations are lagging behind. Less than 19 percent of Hispanics and just 25 of blacks have a degree, compared to 35 percent of whites. “We need to continue to focus on that,” said Lubbers.

The Commission on Higher Education also has been pushing the state’s universities to reach out to Hoosiers who have some college courses but no degree. Lubbers said there are more than 730,000 Indiana residents who fall in that category.

“At one point, they had the aspiration, but life got in the way,” she said. “We’ve got to get them back.”

The report also shows a significant geographic disparity in college attainment in Indiana. In two of Indiana’s wealthiest suburban counties — Boone and Hamilton — more than 50 percent of working-age adults have college degrees. Meanwhile, it’s less than 20 percent in the state’s most rural and poor counties.

There are myriad of state efforts to accelerate college attainment, including changes in the popular 21st Century Scholars program that’s paying for thousands of low-income students to go to college in Indiana. Those students are now being tracked more closely, and have increased access to mentoring and tutoring services designed to keep them on pace for graduation.

But both Lubbers and Matthews say local communities can also play a critical role in increasing the college-attainment numbers, especially among those who are first in their family to go to college.

Beyond the traditional scholarships that come from community-based groups, those students also often need encouragement and emotional support to stay in school, they said.

“It helps,” Matthews said, “when communities let their young people know: We’re invested in you for the long term.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden

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