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Educators consider the future of higher education as enrollment declines

By Bente Bouthier, IPB News | Published on in Economy, Education, Health, Statewide News
(Bente Bouthier, WFIU/WTIU News)

High school students and college recruiters mingle in Martinsville High School’s gymnasium for a college and career fair.

Some students, like high school senior Olivia Nicoloff from Franklin Community High School, have reconsidered their plans since the pandemic.

She thought she’d get a four-year degree on a college campus. But instead she got a job at Starbucks in high school, and now plans to take the company up on its offer to pay for her to go to Arizona State University, where she’ll attend online.

“I feel like for students like me, who don’t really want to spend that much money on college, or they don’t really know what they want to do yet, this could be a great opportunity for them to figure out what they want to do,” she said.

The hesitancy is something Indiana education leaders have observed in their data and it concerns them.

A 2021 report from the Commission on Higher Education said Indiana’s college attendance rates dropped 6 percentage points in the last five years – with sharp declines happening in the last two years.

Former commissioner of higher education, Teresa Lubbers, said in her final address before stepping down that the biggest drops have been observed in minority students, graduates enrolling in two-year degrees, and low-income groups.

“That’s where we’ve seen the drop in enrollment is more with students who have been probably more adversely impacted by COVID.”

She said in the past, it was people with high school diplomas who fueled Indiana’s economy. But while the number of high school graduates pursuing higher education is dropping, the number of Indiana jobs that require a college degree rose by 7 percent in the last year, according to a 2022 Ball State economic assessment.

And that’s been on Carl Wagner’s mind when he organizes career and college events. He counsels high school students in Martinsville about their graduation plans. He doesn’t necessarily think college is the right choice for every student but wants kids to be aware they have options.

“If you’re going to college, you ought to know why you’re going,” Wagner said. “It doesn’t mean you have to have a major picked out. But you ought to know that whatever you’re going to do, will take a college degree.”

He sees schools trying to make efforts to bring students in, but isn’t sure it will be enough to make enrollment tick back up.

ISU’s Vice Provost for Enrollment Jason Trainer agrees with Wagner. Their enrollment is down more than 11 percent from last spring. He said ISU is cautiously optimistic, but it’s hard to predict what the fall will look like.

“I think we believe there’ll be some sort of recovery. I think most of us would have an expectation that it’s probably not going to actually get back to a pre-COVID type of numbers,” Trainer said. “And in some of that is just based on the workforce. There’s a lot more incentives and a lot more push for students to go directly into the workforce. We have to kind of read to understand that, and to make a stronger case in terms of their long-term career, and long-term earning potential.”

He said ISU is responding to student’s shifting needs – trying keep tuition affordable by guaranteeing that Pell Grant-eligible students with a 3.0 GPA have any gaps in tuition covered, and providing every ISU student with $3,000 toward an out-of-classroom experience.

And he added ISU and is having to compete with larger state schools that have lowered test score requirements for admission.

Nicoloff wants to major in marketing and management at Arizona State, hoping it will advance her at Starbucks, and is excited to not owe any money when she finishes her degree.

According to the National Clearinghouse Research Center, higher education enrollment fell 2.7 percent in the fall 2021, following a drop of 2.5 percent the year before.