The Journal Gazette
Friday, November 26, 2021 1:00 am


Higher education

A chance to reimagine state's college-grad goals

EDITORIAL BOARD | The Journal Gazette

With the retirement of state higher education Commissioner Teresa Lubbers at the end of the legislative session in March, Indiana will have a new top state college official for the first time in more than a decade. The opening is an opportunity to take a critical look at where the state stands in producing college graduates.

Lubbers, 70, announced this month she will step down from the post she has held since 2009. The 14-member Indiana Commission for Higher Education will select her successor. A Republican state senator for 17 years, Lubbers succeeded Democrat Stan Jones in the post and is now the longest-serving state higher education officer.

Fort Wayne resident Marilyn Moran-Townsend represented the 3rd Congressional District on the Indiana Commission for Higher Education from 2004 to 2012, including a term as chair.

“I was thrilled when Teresa Lubbers became the Commissioner for Higher Education!” Moran-Townsend wrote in an email. “Her commitment to the profession, her skills to inspire other leaders and to bring them together around common purpose, and her unwavering desire to lift up the educational attainment of all Hoosiers made Teresa a legend in her own lifetime. I am so lucky to have had the privilege of serving with her!”

Gov. Eric Holcomb also had words of praise: “Indiana has been fortunate to have Commissioner Lubbers devote her time in public service to the benefit of Hoosiers with her work in higher education and workforce issues for our state for many years,” he said in a statement.

Holcomb in 2019 tapped the commissioner to chair the Governor's Workforce Cabinet, one of many state initiatives emphasizing workforce development. That approach might work well in meeting immediate efforts to fill jobs, but Indiana needs much more:

• The state has fewer high school graduates enrolling in college now than five years ago. Commission for Higher Education data shows the college-going rate is 59%, down six percentage points over the past five years.

• The percentage of Hoosiers with a bachelor's degree or higher grew little over the past decade, from 22.7% in 2010 to 26.9% in 2019, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The national average is 36%. Indiana ranks 43rd among the states for educational attainment, just behind Tennessee.

• College-going rates are even lower among Black, Hispanic and Latino, and low-income high school graduates in Indiana.

• Indiana's investment in education declined over the past decade. If the state spent the same share of its gross domestic product on education in 2019 as was spent in 2010, investment in higher education would be 29.4% higher, or an additional $583 million a year, according to Ball State University economist Michael Hicks.

• Indiana jobs grew at a rate 30% lower than the U.S. average during the nation's longest economic expansion, from 2010 to the end of 2019, according to Hicks. Indiana's relative per capita income recorded its biggest decline in history during that period.

Clearly, the state must do better. The business and workforce development-driven approach followed over the past decade-plus is not working.

The commissioner for higher education is a political appointee, selected by gubernatorial appointees who primarily come from business backgrounds. Given the state's flailing performance on education and economic measures, it would be wise to look beyond the political and business community for the next commissioner. Selecting a top higher education officer with a background in higher education – someone who understands the obstacles minority and low-income students face in enrolling and succeeding in college, for example – could help the state improve on its poor record.

Indiana needs a higher education commissioner who will vigorously challenge the narrative that college degrees aren't necessary. Certainly, it's possible to earn a good living without one, but much data confirms the link between higher education and higher wages, as does Indiana's tepid economic performance relative to the rest of the nation. We need a higher education commissioner who will champion strong investment in its colleges and universities -- investments to support student success and, ultimately, to raise the state's educational attainment to at least the national average.

Indiana Commission for Higher Education

Michael J. Alley, Patriot Investments LLC

Edward Berger, faculty representative, Purdue University

Dennis Bland, Center for Leadership Development

Anne Bowen, student representative, Indiana State University

Jud Fisher, Ball Brothers Foundation

Bill Hanna, Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation

*Allan Hubbard, E&A Industries

Chris LaMothe, Ascendanci Ventures LLC

Pepper Mulherin, AT&T

Chris Murphy, 1st Source Bank

Dan Peterson, Cook Group Inc.

Beverley Pitts, retired college administrator

*John Popp, Aunt Millie's Bakeries

*term expired June 30; no replacement or reappointment set

A seat representing 4th Congressional District is vacant

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