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IPFW deserves the benefits of flexibility

Regional campus constraints inhibit unique student body

Banks

My first three sessions in the General Assembly have seen no shortage of controversial subjects. Whether debating right to work, collective bargaining for teachers or the legalization of raw milk, my email inbox has had its share of opinionated letters. Right up there on that list is the subject of creating an autonomous IPFW.

Arguments are usually split down the middle. Some see IPFW as a unique institution with specific, and often unfulfilled, needs, which warrants giving it more freedom. Just as many others do not want to separate IPFW from its prestigious parent schools.

I get it. The value of an Indiana University or Purdue University degree is enormous.

Students benefit from their choice of world-class education opportunities right here at home. On the other hand, only IPFW can really understand what its students and faculty need. Even if IPFW isn’t to have complete autonomy, there are three things we can do to give it the flexibility it requires.

First, we must recognize IPFW serves a distinct group of students. IPFW is the fifth-largest university in Indiana and the largest in northeast Indiana. This past school year, it served about 14,000 students – 8,500 full time; 5,000 part time. Seven percent lived on campus, meaning most were commuting every day from the Fort Wayne area. This is in contrast to IPFW’s more populous parent schools, both of which have at least a third of their students on campus and smaller proportions of part-time students.

But IPFW isn’t the only system campus with unique needs.

IUPUI also serves nontraditional students. However, the Indianapolis university is granted a special designation as a “metropolitan campus,” giving it more graduate programs in professional areas such as medicine, dentistry and law.

I believe IPFW deserves its own classification. Among other restrictions, its “regional campus” label means it cannot create doctoral degrees and can only offer select master’s programs, keeping it from growing and adapting to student requirements.

That brings me to my second point. While it may be some time before doctoral programs are part of IPFW’s curriculum, an accelerated approval process for new master’s degrees would help the school address local demand.

Businesses have expressed the need for these programs as a means to spur economic development. At a recent meeting of the Regional Campuses Study Committee, a representative with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership said the biggest challenge for the area is attracting, developing and retaining talent

About 90 percent of IPFW students are from the community, and they are likely to stay in the area after graduation.

But if we don’t provide these students with the means to make themselves competitive with advanced degrees, they may seek these opportunities elsewhere.

Right now, IPFW must have its proposals for new master’s degrees reviewed by Purdue and approved by the Commission for Higher Education. This can take an unspecified amount of time, further delaying new curricula.

A restructured approval process could help the school more immediately answer employers’ and students’ needs.

A third thing to consider is IPFW’s current funding situation. Despite its unique student population, IPFW is held to the same funding formula as more traditional four-year schools.

Because a portion of colleges’ funding is contingent upon on-time graduation, IPFW faces a disadvantage other schools don’t. It is expected to serve part-time students, but its funding formula isn’t adjusted to reflect that. We should give IPFW a structure that fits its specific situation and allows it to flourish.

The Regional Campuses Study Committee will meet Wednesday to look at these issues. Throughout the process, it’s my goal not only to advocate for IPFW and its students but for northeast Indiana as a whole. Ultimately, granting IPFW more flexibility will help the Fort Wayne area compete in a global economy.

Jim Banks is a state senator from Columbia City and a member of the Regional Campuses Study Committee. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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