What should Indiana do to increase the number of Hoosier students who go to college?

Summer in Indiana—blooming flowers, filled racetracks and high school graduates excited about college. But while flowers and racing are perennial, Hoosier grads now question college.

College enrollment rates in Indiana are lower now than before the pandemic. Enrollment dropped 7% nationally over the past five years and plunged 12% in Indiana, a loss of 40,000 students.

Those who do enroll in college struggle to stay. Many drop out. Almost 770,000 Hoosiers have some college but no degree.

These numbers are troubling, given that only 40% of Indiana residents have a degree. In a world where post-high-school education is crucial to good jobs and better lives, too many Hoosiers are being left behind. When Hoosiers suffer, our state suffers. Michael Hicks, a professor of economics and business research at Ball State University, says: “Differences in economic growth across regions—nations, states, cities and counties—are almost exclusively caused by differences in educational attainment. Poorly educated places are poor and grow slowly, while well-educated places are prosperous and grow quickly.”

We must work together to recapture the tens of thousands of students we’ve lost, reach hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers with some college but not a degree, and encourage future generations to keep learning.

Let’s focus on the real issues holding them back:

  • Cost. Let’s make college affordable and better communicate financial aid to students, because financial aid is the number one reason they enroll or stay in school. The expansion of 21st Century Scholars is great but not sufficient. We must lower costs and eliminate fees and policies that hold enrollment hostage for unpaid parking tickets or other small fees.
  • Employer’s role. The Business Equity for Indy taskforce recommends employers raise awareness of the importance of FAFSA completion, establish tuition assistance benefit programs and pay these fees upfront.
  • Dual enrollment. Let’s encourage more high school students, particularly low-income and students of color, to enroll in college credits while in high school. Indiana’s “College Core” dual credit program helps, but to make this truly accessible, Indiana must find ways to remove the cost.
  • Comprehensive student support. Money isn’t the only obstacle. Colleges must support the whole student, ranging from child care and food banks to virtual advising and emergency aid. Institutions and Indiana employers must offer clear pathways to careers available in the state.
  • Mental health counseling. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24. Students are telling us they are struggling, and this is the number one threat to their success. It’s urgent that we prioritize students’ emotional health through greater funding for online and real-time therapists and emergency hotlines.

If we start together now, hopefully, this time next year, we’ll see not only the race and the blooming flowers but also many more students with good reasons to celebrate and put Indiana on a path to an economically and socially prosperous future.

This article was originally published in the Indianapolis Business Journal.

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