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An outdated worldview is degree plan’s flaw

Having read the March 17 column authored by Teresa Lubbers and Marilyn Moran Townsend about the cost of not completing college, I couldn’t agree more with the premise that those who begin pursuing a college education should complete their degree in a timely fashion, graduate debt-free and enter a world where their education is both valued and respected.

Unfortunately, these conditions are not a reality for many of our students and they haven’t been since the 1960s. So what’s changed since those halcyon days 50 years ago?

Tuition: In 1963, when I began attending college, my tuition at a state institution for one semester was $95. Today, the average tuition for one semester is about $4,000. Certainly, inflation has had an effect ($95 in 1963 equates to $760 in today’s dollars), but declining legislative budget support for state institutions has contributed more. In the 1960s, state support comprised 80 percent to 90 percent or more of an institution’s budget. Today, that support has dwindled to less than 50 percent. Public colleges and universities have made up the difference by increasing tuition.

Public support of private education: In Indiana, students attending private institutions are supported by public funds. In fact, 36 percent of the $186 million in the largest state aid program is awarded to students attending private institutions. The proposed legislation not only adds to the overregulation of public institutions, but it in no way regulates the private institutions utilizing state funds. If “control is a taxpayer’s right,” why is the Commission for Higher Education not controlling private colleges that receive state funds?

Students: In the intervening 50 years between the 1960s and now, more and more less-well prepared students have been encouraged to attend college. This lack of preparation manifests itself in several ways.

First, more students are less certain about a career choice, and many change majors several times, making a legislated “road map” meaningless.

Second, many lack the academic preparation to be immediately ready to attend college, causing them to enroll in remedial classes and retake classes in which they were unsuccessful.

Third, a large number are “first-in-family” college attendees who lack the parental knowledge and support to help them succeed.

Society: In the 1960s, having a college degree was a ticket to procuring a well-paying, secure job. Today, many college graduates are unemployed, underemployed or cannot find work in their chosen field. This condition has been exacerbated by public officials’ questioning the value of a college degree, further eroding state financial support to baccalaureate institutions.

As a result, many who start college are insecure about their choice and are less committed to finishing their education.

Life: Going to college in the 1960s meant being a full-time student. Today, many students begin as full time, then switch back and forth from full time to part time to full time as their financial condition waxes and wanes, as their family obligations fluctuate and as their attention span dictates. For this reason, too, a college career can lengthen or be truncated.

The commission or its predecessor agency have been complicit if not responsible for causing the first four of these five changes, so it is disingenuous at best to react quite so strongly to an editorial suggestion that currently proposed legislation is overly intrusive if not counterproductive and ineffective.

Small financial incentives for finishing degrees will mostly benefit the traditional, full-time students at selective institutions who already have the financial and cultural wherewithal to be able to choose to lengthen their college experience. Those incentives will not help the larger number of students for whom life provides no choice.

As my father often said, “The rich get richer, and the poor …!”

Michael Wartell is chancellor emeritus of IPFW.