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Lackluster Ivy Tech Data Prompts Statehouse Funding Freeze

The Indiana General Assembly allocated nearly $2 billion for the state's colleges in the recently passed budget – including money for new building projects. The only institution that didn't receive funding for one of those projects is Ivy Tech Community College.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, was one of the architects of that $31 billion budget Gov. Mike Pence signed into law. As he was reviewing requests from the state's colleges for more than $761 million in capital projects, there was a phone call.

It came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in recent years has invested millions of dollars to boost community college graduation rates.

"They gave me a courtesy call before the end of the session to say that Ivy Tech, if not the lowest in the country, is near the bottom," Kenley says. "That also gave me pause."

According to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, less than one-third of Ivy Tech students complete a degree within six years. Kenley says even more alarming is its declining enrollment: down 25 percent in the last three years. That's the worst downturn in the state.

In response, lawmakers denied funding requests for two new buildings in Evansville and Muncie. Currently, Ivy Tech operates more than 80 campus buildings.

"How many facilities do you need?" Kenley asks. "We have just had so many facilities added on, and we have pretty well blanketed the state now."

He says the state needs to take a "time out" on Ivy Tech projects. But after 10 years of waiting, administrators at Ivy Tech's Muncie campus say their time has come.

Despite Concerns, Campuses Say They're In Need

"When you compare this space from an education-learning environment, from a presentation standpoint, from a quality of learning space – the Cowan Road campus is in dramatic, almost desperate need of repair," says Andy Bowne, chancellor for Ivy Tech's East Central and Richmond regions.

Part of that region includes the Muncie campus whose $25 million request lawmakers denied. The funds would have gone toward renovating the campus' nearly 40-year-old buildings and constructing a new technology lab.

The existing technology lab at the Cowan Road campus is cramped with new and old robotics. Here, students learn how to operate manual and computer-controlled manufacturing equipment.

The school is about to spend $1.2 million to buy updated machines, but Bowne says that's the minimum they needed. He says the proposed 20,000-square foot technology lab could offer Ivy Tech students the ability to simulate a real factory.

"It's not just about the equipment that they run or the equipment that they program, it's how you link it together, how you plan out from a production flow standpoint."

Claire Berger, dean of the Ivy Tech Engineering Technology program in Muncie, says the current space isn't conducive to replicating the manufacturing industry.

"Right now, all of the technology programs are kind of spread out between maybe three buildings and if we had a tech center, we could really do integration like I want," Berger says. "Now it's by piecemeal."

Showing Lawmakers It's Worth The Money

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education recommended to the Indiana General Assembly funding for seven capital projects, including the Cowan Road campus.

But the East Central region has struggled in recent years with completion. The number of graduates fell by nearly 300 from 2014 to 2015.

Still, the college has taken several new approaches to reverse that trend.

Students can now take both remedial courses in math and English and required classes at the same time. They have also created academic completion plans, college introductory courses and an advising system that includes student performance monitoring.

Bowne says these changes have put East Central campuses at the top of Ivy Tech's regions for student retention.

Statewide, Ivy Tech is aiming to boost its completion numbers with a new tuition freeze. Starting this fall, students who enroll continuously from term to term or those with 30 or more hours over the next two semesters will be eligible.

"I think this is part of the evolution and development of the community college system in our state," says Teresa Lubbers, the Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education.

She will lead an effort to help Ivy Tech revitalize its poor enrollment and completion rates.

In addition to denying Ivy Tech funding for new buildings, the state's budget authorized the Commission for Higher Education to restructure or eliminate programs with low graduation rates.

Some warn, though, that relying too heavily on graduation rates as a success metric can be problematic.

"Graduation rates are only one marker to indicate success and for community colleges, especially because we have so many programs and services that put people on the path to success that can't be measured nearly by graduation rates," said Martha Parham, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges.

While Parham said she can't speak specifically to Ivy Tech's case, many colleges across the country offer courses, such as English as a second language or computer technology classes, that students take to enhance their careers rather than earn a degree.

"If you only look at graduation rates, you're dismissing all of those other types of successes," she said.

The Commission for Higher Education's review promises to be comprehensive, although graduation rates will be a key factor to determine the state's recommendations for Ivy Tech.

"I think the most important thing we can do right now is really dig deep on our data and then from that figure out where our gaps in performance and where our success points are and then build strategies to really improve the success of Ivy Tech," Lubbers said.

Funding for the Muncie site and other Ivy Tech locations isn't gone for good. Kenley says, pending the outcome of improvement efforts and the Commission for Higher Education's review, those dollars could be available in the future.

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