Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

July 14, 2013

Beyond the numbers

Officials say Ivy Tech graduation rates don't tell whole story

By Lindsey Ziliak
Kokomo Tribune

---- — It took single mom Sarah Miller seven years to graduate with a two-year degree in computer information technology.

It was difficult juggling classes with caring for her two children. The Kokomo woman enrolled in online classes at Ivy Tech Community College whenever she could, but admitted there were times she just had to drop out for a while.

Ivy Tech was there to support her through every step.“I knew Ivy Tech wasn’t giving up on me,” she said. “That made me even more determined to finish my degree.”

Miller said she doesn’t think it’s fair for state officials to scrutinize the community college for its low on-time graduation rates. The college shouldn’t be punished for giving non-traditional students like her an opportunity for an education, she said.

“That’s what’s so great about Ivy Tech,” Miller said. “They adapt to the circumstances you’re going through. Things happen. You can’t help that.”

But in recent weeks, state leaders have said the college’s graduation rates simply aren’t acceptable. Just 4 percent of students statewide at Ivy Tech Community College graduate within two years and only 23 percent earn degrees in six years, according to state data.

Statistics in the Kokomo region are a little higher. According to local officials, 15 percent of its students graduate on time.Those numbers make officials wary of pumping more money into the college, though.

“Is it a funding issue — or is it a completion issue?” Marilee Springer, Gov. Mike Pence’s senior policy director, told the Indianapolis Star. “We can keep driving money in, but that money needs to lead to degree completion. I don’t know if more funding is the answer.”

Local Ivy Tech officials said Indiana has never pumped money into its college system. The reality is Ivy Tech is underfunded compared to other institutions, they said.Forty-seven percent of all students enrolled in public colleges in Indiana attend Ivy Tech, said Ivy Tech Kokomo Region Chancellor Steve Daily on a recent afternoon. But the college gets just 14 percent of the appropriations from the state.

“Should we continue to barely feed something that is starving?” said Kim King, vice chancellor of student affairs for the Ivy Tech Kokomo region.Former Ivy Tech student Kim Plain said less funding is not the answer.

The college needs more resources, she said.

Plain once went to a community college in Texas. She said the Lone Star State values its community college system. There was one in almost every county. And they had a lot of resources. There were even pools and fitness centers at many of them, she said.

“They ensured you could get an education if you wanted it,” Plain said.

And the fact is, Ivy Tech is still the state’s most affordable option for school, the Tipton woman added. For many of Ivy Tech’s students, it’s their only option.“It’s a different demographic here,” she said.

According to Ivy Tech, it serves the most complex student body in higher education. Seventy-three percent of Ivy Tech students statewide are working adults, and 42 percent of them work 20 or more hours a week, according to figures the college compiled. Twenty-one percent of students are single parents. More than half only go to school part time. Only 4 percent of students take 15 or more credit hours, and 40,000 of its students need remediation.

“Our population is different than four-year residential universities,” King said. “You can’t quantify those psychological barriers they face.”

Kokomo’s region has a lot of veterans taking classes. At least one suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some students live in poverty and deal with childcare issues or have their electricity shut off.

One student is enrolled in the county’s drug court program. He’s going through a complete lifestyle change, including finding a new set of friends.

King said he’s a great student who will do really well, but he faces a lot of barriers.“It’s a shaky life he’s going through right now,” she said. Others only go to school until they find a full-time job. When they do, they decide they need that income to support their families so they drop out.

"We call those students every semester,” King said.

Some come back eventually. Others do not. Those students count against the college’s graduation figures. So do students who start at Ivy Tech and transfer to another institution to finish.

“A lot of those students would be surprised to know they’re being counted as failures,” King said. “They achieved their goals.”

Officials say they’re not making excuses, though. They know there’s room for improvement in the numbers.And every day they’re working at it.

Ivy Tech has implemented more than 20 new academic initiatives statewide. Many are being piloted in this region.

Just 58 percent of students statewide who enroll in Ivy Tech Community College’s freshman composition course pass it on the first try, officials said. So this year, the region piloted the English 111 Gateway program.It extends a student’s one-on-one time with teachers. Writing centers with certified tutors are available for students. Every Ivy Tech student has to take the course. It’s important they make it through it, King said.

“If they don’t pass that course, they’re, well, they’re shut down,” she said.The college revamped its remediation courses, hired a retention advisor and implemented an early alert system.

Under that system, if a student misses too many classes or is struggling with grades, teachers can send out an alert. The student’s academic advisor gets the alert and sets up a meeting with the student to find out what’s going on.Those small things meant a lot to Miller.

She said it was exhausting going to school and caring for two young kids. But Ivy Tech helped her succeed – even if it wasn’t as quickly as the state would like.

“Ivy Tech is there for you,” she said. “They allowed me to fit them around my schedule. They stayed with me. They supported me.”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com