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The Journal Gazette

Friday, August 04, 2017 1:00 am


Financial education

More college completion boosts state economy

On track

Over five years, Indiana has seen across-the-board improvement in college completion rates. The percentage of students graduating on time:

Minorities: 18.7 percent, up 8.5 percent

21st Century Scholars: 23.1 percent,up 8.6 percent

Other low-income students: 21.1 percent, up 9.5 percent

Part-time students: 4.8 percent,up 3.8 percent

All students: 34.5 percent, up 11.3 percent

The old adage, “time is money,” rings particularly true when it comes to higher education. Each college term can add tens of thousands of dollars to a student's debt load, which is why Indiana's steadily improving college completion rates are great news.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education released an annual report last week showing completion rates improving at campuses across the state. Over the past five years, on-time graduation rates have ticked up by nearly 12 percent at public colleges and universities. Even better news: The completion gap between minority students and students overall has declined by almost half. 

Indiana still has work to do. The state ranks 42nd in the nation for percentage of adults with at least a bachelor's degree. Just 24.9 percent of Hoosiers have a four-year degree. The national average is 30.6 percent.

But the report shows encouraging signs of more Indiana students on track to graduate, with impressive gains for students enrolled in Indiana's21st Century Scholars program. The latest figures show 23 percent graduating on time – an increase of nearly 9 percent over five years. The six-year graduation rate for Scholars – who qualify based on financial need – has grown to 46.4 percent. Teresa Lubbers, Indiana commissioner for higher education, pointed out the improvement came with changes in financial aid requirements designed to keep students on track. The percentage of 21st Century Scholars completing at least 30 credit hours a year increased by 14 percent between 2011 and 2014.

Moving the needle on college completion is tough work. As with improvements in K-12 education, colleges and universities must do more than tell students to do better. A changing economy has sent more students to college, resulting in increasing numbers of first-generation students. Colleges and universities have developed support systems for students who can't rely on family advice for scheduling and time management. Improving completion rates show those support systems are helping. Colleges also have benefited from changes in state policy, including student aid requirements that encourage students not just to enroll, but to complete courses. 

It's tough to measure the direct effect, but a 2015 state law requiring colleges and universities to advise prospective student borrowers of the likely monthly payment and total payoff on loans they are eligible to carry undoubtedly is helping students stay on track. Former state Rep. Casey Cox, a Fort Wayne Republican, sponsored the bill as a means of addressing ballooning student debt, but the annual notice students receive has to be a powerful reminder that every semester of enrollment increases total debt.

College completion benefits more than just students. A College Board report last year found median earnings of bachelor's degree recipients working full time were $24,600 a year – 67 percent higher than those of high school graduates. The college graduates paid an estimated $6,900 more in taxes and took home $17,700 more in after-tax income than high school graduates. 

The same report finds a four-year college student who enrolls at age 18 and graduates in four years will earn enough relative to the median high school graduate by age 34 to make up for being out of the labor force for four years and for paying full tuition, fees, books and supplies without grant aid.

The key, of course, is graduating on time. Life issues – family and health challenges – always will prevent some students from graduating in two or four years, but efforts by the state and by colleges and universities to continually improve on completion rates are good for students, good for Indiana.