On the sprawling urban campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Zebulun Davenport has one of the more difficult jobs. A vice chancellor, he is tasked with putting together all the pieces needed to keep a diverse body of students in school long enough to graduate.
Based on history, most won’t. Fewer than 15 percent of IUPUI’s undergraduates earn a degree in four years; fewer than 40 percent will get one in six.
All of Indiana’s public colleges and universities have lower than desired graduation rates, though IUPUI faces some special challenges.
Many of its students are working to support themselves or family while attending college. And about 45 percent of IUPUI students fall in the category of “first generation” — the children of parents who never went to college or never finished.
It’s that first-generation demographic that may hold the key to Indiana’s future. A recent report by the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation found Indiana was in the bottom tier of states whose residents hold college degrees.
That puts us at a distinct disadvantage for attracting the high-skill, high-wage jobs needed to boost the state’s per capita income, which has been stagnant for a decade.
At IUPUI, and on other campuses around the state, university administrators like Davenport are accelerating their efforts to be more intentional about retaining and graduating students.
It’s been forced: The state Legislature has shifted more higher education dollars into performance-based funding, rewarding universities not just for getting students in the door but getting them out, a degree in hand.
Davenport rightfully is pleased by what he calls a cultural change on university campuses, as they move away from the disengaged model that said students were on their own to make it or break it.
“Struggle can build character,” Davenport told me. “But it takes a while before that character is built. And sometimes, it’s too late. We have too many students who look back and say, ‘I just couldn’t make it.’”