Ivy Tech nursing students (from left) Mary Lyn Robinson, Samantha Kofahl and Vince Markowicz learn in a hospice simulation. / Michelle Pemberton, The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS - In Tennessee - one of the few states less educated than Indiana - a big move looks to raise college expectations and bolster enrollment:
Free community college tuition.
It's a buzz-worthy plan that experts expect to change Tennessee's culture of higher education. Tennessee faces struggles similar to Indiana's in closing gaps in postsecondary attainment levels - and, consequently, gaps in in-demand workforce skills.
In both states, according to the Lumina Foundation, about two out of every three people don't have any kind of college degree.
As Indiana looks to reverse that statistic, one of the primary challenges comes from the state's calculations that small annual increases in college attainment won't be enough to meet employer demand over the next decade.
By 2025, the state estimates, about half a million additional Hoosiers will need to graduate with certificates or associate degrees.
So the push in Tennessee - No. 42 to Indiana's No. 41 in the country in college degrees - naturally raises the question: Should Hoosier students get a free ride to the state's two-year colleges?
"Think how we'd change the state," said Jeff Terp, Ivy Tech Community College chief operating officer. "We'd have one of the most educated workforces in the country."
It's a discussion that neither state education officials nor lawmakers have ever had, said the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. And it's likely to bubble up in the upcoming budget-setting legislative session.
The obvious question centers on where the state would find public dollars to finance free tuition. The Tennessee Promise, as it's called, is expected to cost $34 million a year in lottery funds.
But education experts say fundamental questions need to be asked first about how such an initiative would play out in Indiana. Which students would benefit? How much would free tuition help students be successful at Ivy Tech or Vincennes University, the state's public two-year colleges? And would Indiana leaders get behind the idea?
1. Who would benefit?
What's unclear, state commissioner for higher education Teresa Lubbers says, is whether a free community college tuition plan would boost the students facing the most obstacles to earning degrees.
Of particular concern are low-income students and "nontraditional" students, students who are older adults with families and jobs to balance.
Low-income students now are eligible for a lot of financial aid in Indiana.
Many low-income students can attend Ivy Tech, Indiana's statewide system, free through a combination of state and federal financial aid grants that don't need to be repaid - with state dollars left over for books and other college-related expenses. The Tennessee Promise does not provide money for books.
A free tuition plan for all approach, on the other hand, would primarily benefit students whose families can afford some or all of a two-year college tuition, Lubbers said.
"Do we," she said, "believe that, regardless of need, two years of college should be free?"
There are some caveats under Indiana's financial aid system, which can affect nontraditional students, too.
About a third of Indiana community college applicants last year, about 58,000 people, had no chance of receiving any state financial aid. Why? Because they missed the state's March deadline for filing financial aid paperwork. Many didn't end up enrolling.
Who that hurts the most, Terp has said, are "the poorest of the poor." Nontraditional and low-income students may not be sure that far in advance that they can afford college. Workers may lose their jobs and decide last-minute to pursue credentials to help employment prospects.
Tennessee also requires filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by a similar deadline.
Another catch with free college under both the Tennessee Promise and Indiana's current financial aid offerings: Students must attend full time.
Most of the students at Ivy Tech don't. Many have families to support and jobs to keep.
The Tennessee Promise, which mainly applies to graduating high school seniors, requires full-time enrollment over consecutive semesters.
There's a reason for the full-time emphasis: Data show the longer students take in college, the less likely they are to ever graduate.
So whether in Indiana or Tennessee, some of the students in most need of help don't get the financial incentives they need.
Still, one of the most influential anticipated effects of the Tennessee Promise isn't just the final count of new degrees. It's setting a college-going precedent for the next generation.
With cost out of the question, college becomes more accessible - maybe even a given. And down the line, perhaps the state ends up with fewer adults who bypassed or didn't make it through college.
That is a drastic attitude change that experts say Indiana desperately needs.
"What you're doing is you're really showing people that it's possible and they can go," said Cheryl Orr Dixon, senior vice president and chief of staff for Complete College America, a nonprofit that works with states to increase graduation rates.
2. Would students succeed?
Free tuition would not cure all of Indiana's higher education woes. Chief among them: low graduation rates.
"If you do the free tuition to create more affordability and more access," Dixon said, "we really need to make sure the system that (students) go into is set up so they all finish. These students at community colleges have complicated lives."
Free tuition might give students the ticket to enter college. But then what?
Just 4 percent of Ivy Tech's first-time, full-time students graduate in two years, mirroring a national trend among community colleges.
Ivy Tech reports its students take on average more than five years to finish a two-year degree - if they finish at all. The drop-out rate for all Ivy Tech students hovers around 50 percent six years after enrolling.
Even among the half of students who didn't drop out, not all earned degrees.
Ivy Tech is testing innovative strategies aimed at improving student success. If it can scale them across its statewide system, officials have said they hope the changes will result in dramatic improvements in graduation rates.
"The significant game-changer for community colleges is overhauling the way that programs are offered," Dixon said, "so we don't have pockets of excellence - we have a completely different structure."
3. Would a plan have support?
The Tennessee Promise is one element of a larger effort to raise the rate of college-educated adults in the state from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is "a governor who has made higher education his top priority," said Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis. The Lumina Foundation, a private organization, has spearheaded the movement across the country to significantly raise college attainment levels by 2025.
"While higher education has been an important priority for Indiana," Merisotis added, "I don't believe it's been the No. 1 priority - for the last several governors - like it has been in Tennessee."
He wondered aloud: Is there enough political will in Indiana to push necessary improvements in higher education?
Would Indiana leaders commit to driving big changes like a free tuition proposal? Would they be willing to find the funds?
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has undertaken raising education levels as part of his aim to close the workforce skills gap in career and technical fields that demand some higher education, such as in advanced manufacturing.
The Career Council that Pence formed and led recently released a strategic plan to "cast a vision" for better preparing the workforce, as a press release from his office put it.
Jackie Dowd, the governor's special assistant for career innovation, said an upcoming focus will be providing an incentive for adults to return to college to finish degrees. It's too early to tell what that might look like, but she said it's likely some kind of state-funded program will be created.
Another indicator of lawmakers' commitment to higher education will show through the crafting of the biennial budget, when they set funding levels for public colleges and financial aid.
Still, simply asking the question itself - should two-year degrees be free in Indiana? - has the potential, the education leaders agreed, to sharpen policymakers' sights on how the state can reach its higher education goals.
"Indiana is focused on all the right things," Complete College's Dixon said, "and leadership is focused on the right things. But it takes bold leadership to make significant kinds of moves that are hard."
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