September 12, 2008

College Grad Rate Gets Low Grade Hoosier Degrees Falling Behind

By BRYAN CORBIN Courier & Press Statehouse bureau (317) 631-7405 or [email protected]

INDIANAPOLIS - While Indiana is doing a better job in steering students into college, too few are earning degrees within four years - or earning them at all - from the state's public colleges and universities.

Those were the findings of the state's top higher-education planners, who argued colleges and universities should have an incentive - funding - to prod their students into graduating

within four years.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education, a 14-member body that steers policy on public colleges and universities, unveiled its strategic plan Monday. The commission's goal is to place Indiana among the top 10 in the nation for degree completion in 2012. With 62 percent of its high school grads heading to post-secondary institutions, Indiana already ranks 10th in the nation in enrollment, but the students fall behind once on campus. Only 36 percent graduate in four years, and only 57 percent graduate within six years.

"We believe it's absolutely essential that we achieve these if Indiana is going to be successful and competitive in this global economy - and more importantly, if we are going to raise the standard of living of people in this state," commission member Chris Murphy said Monday.

The University of Southern Indiana would feel any change in how the state distributes funding. USI President H. Ray Hoops was blunt in his assessment of the panel's proposal to link new funding to graduation rates. Hoops called it "the worst piece of public policy in my 42 years in education."

According to the commission report, USI's graduation rate in 2006 was 13 percent within four years and 31 percent within six years. That put USI in the middle of the pack for Indiana institutions, below Indiana State but ahead of Indiana University-Northwest.

".. A four-year time frame isn't traditional any more Everyone takes longer than that," Hoops said. Beyond that, he contended, the numbers themselves are misleading: Students who cut back from full- time to part-time status or who transfer into or out of other institutions aren't counted in the rate, he said.

Hoops noted that some degree programs take longer than four years to complete. And students' financial situations may force them to stretch out their college education over more than four years.

The commission wants to restructure the way Indiana funds its public universities to focus on degree completion rather than enrollment growth. Extra money would be linked to on-time graduation rates, courses completed, degrees conferred and credits transferred from community colleges to four-year institutions.

"They used to say, 'Give us more money and we'll do a better job.' We're saying, 'Do a better job and we'll give you more money,'" said Stan Jones, state commissioner of higher education.

Since the commission's recommendation is nonbinding, the 2009 Legislature makes the final call on how to fund colleges and universities. The commission could face skepticism from at least one member of the House Ways and Means Committee, state Rep. Dennis Avery, D-Evansville.

"There will be some legislators who give it serious consideration; and we will all look at the issue, and there is merit in encouraging students to obtain their degrees," said Avery, who in his nonlegislative job is coordinator of adult marketing and recruiting at USI.

n The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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