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Doubling Completions and Driving Enrollments: Ambitious Goals But Critical and Attainable

The EvoLLLution | Doubling Completions and Driving Enrollments: Ambitious Goals But Critical and Attainable
By developing student-focused strategies that are well aligned with industry demand, Ivy Tech is on course to meet its five-year goal of 50,000 student completions per year.
Serving nearly 160,000 students every year across 45 campus and site locations, Ivy Tech Community College is the largest public postsecondary institution in the state of Indiana–but, having set the ambitious goal to increase the number of annual student completions from 21,000 to 50,000 by 2023, it’s is far from finished growing. In this interview, Sue Ellspermann discusses Ivy Tech’s ambitious plan for driving completion numbers, and explains why the institution’s growth imperative is key for the state, employers and students alike.

EvoLLLution (Evo): A recent piece in the Indiana Business Journal mentions that Ivy Tech aims to double degree completions and increase enrollments by over 25,000 students by 2023. Why are these increases so important?

Sue Ellspermann (SE): Our five-year goal is to award 50,000 degrees and credentials to students at Ivy Tech each year. We’re at 21,182 awards right now, so while this is a tall order, it’s so that our students are able to realize their full potential, and for the state of Indiana and its employers to have the workforce it needs to maintain a competitive economy.

We chose 50,000 for several reasons. Five years ago, the state adopted Lumina’s Goal, which looks to increase the proportion of Americans with postsecondary degrees or credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Since then, Indiana has scaled up from 38 percent to 42 percent in that time, so we’re making progress. That really was our motivation.

In January, the Governor of Indiana spoke about the fact that Indiana will have 1 million jobs to fill by 2025 – and that over half of those jobs will require postsecondary degrees or credentials. That really validated our assumption that our contribution ought to be in the range of 50,000 certificates and degrees per year.

Evo: From a tactical perspective, what are some of the changes that Ivy Tech needs to make to drive those completion numbers?

SE: We’re a large community college system, and many, if not most, of these programs we’re looking to add already exist at Ivy Tech. During the Great Recession, our enrollment numbers went up and we had the capacity to handle it.

At Ivy Tech, we categorize each of our programs into one of four quadrants. In Quadrant One, we’ve got programs where community demand well exceeds the number of students in our programs. These are the programs we will focus on growing. Our Quadrant Two programs have high demand but limited enrollment; they’re programs like nursing, where we fill every seat. We’re going to try and expand those programs as well. Quadrant Three programs are those where we have more students than we have job demand, and we will encourage some of those students to move into Quadrant One courses. Finally, Quadrant Four programs are those where course demand and enrollment numbers are balanced. Over the next five years, we want to move many of our Quadrant One courses to Quadrant Four, meaning that we’ll have enough students to meet industry and workforce demands in our communities.

So, this is a big strategy for us: focusing on enrollment and marketing by encouraging adult learners to stream into the career pathways that meet our Quadrant One demands.

Our second strategy is to increase reverse transfers. We have agreements in place with all of the public institutions in the State of Indiana, so we can lean into one or two thousand reverse transfer degrees per year.

Third, we’re going to be taking a closer look at industry certifications, which isn’t something we’ve measured in the past. We are going to measure the industry certifications that our students receive, counting only those that provide a measurable lift to the student to get to a high-value job like welding.

Finally, we will be building out our industry partnerships. We already have a program called Achieve Your Degree, where we work with a hundred companies to help their entry level employees come back to school to earn a certificate or associate degree in programs that feed back into the company’s internal hiring needs. These are typically programs like industrial maintenance, business certificates, or software development and cyber security courses. This program already has over 3,000 students.

In addition to this, Indiana has a program called Next Level Jobs, which allows any adult to attend our high-demand, high-wage Quadrant One courses for free, even if they’re not financially eligible. We’re also using dual credit, both on the CTE and the transfer side, to help students complete credentials while still in high school.

Evo: Why is it important for colleges to emphasize their non-credit offerings rather than just focusing on degree completion?

SE: First and foremost, we serve the industries in our communities, such as manufacturing, banking, insurance and technology firms. As a community college we have to be able to meet the educational needs of our local industries. Sometimes we accomplish that by developing a four-year or two-year associate degree, but often it’s through shorter credential and certificate courses. Particularly in technology-driven fields, the credentials and certificates we offer are industry determined.

Our responsibility, always, is to lean towards stackable credentials, so even if we do offer an industry certification it can be transferable, so that the employee can continue to grow their education over time.

Evo: From the institution’s perspective, why is it worth putting the time into combining numerous non-credit credentials into a stackable degree pathway? How does that benefit the college?

SE: In higher education, we must meet all our students where they are, whether they’re an 18-year-old or an adult worker seeking to move into the middle class. We don’t want to make an adult learner wait four years, or eight years in a part-time status, before they can reap the benefits of higher education.

A stackable credential is of higher value than a single industry certification, particularly for returning adult learners who may be returning to education after 20 years and may not be prepared to take a four-year, traditional approach to learning. The stackable credential is a much more palatable option, as an adult learner can begin with one certification, then move on from there. It provides for improved earnings and career pathways all the way through an educational journey.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that industry doesn’t wait for a four-year degree. Given the rate of technological innovation, there will be many more degrees, credentials, certifications coming along that we can’t even predict yet, and we have to be able to adapt quickly. The tech field is such a good example of this: who would have known ten or fifteen years ago that the need for cyber security programs would be so high? We’re doing extraordinary things to attract people of all ages into that field. Those sorts of programs don’t require a four-year degree, but they’re incredibly valuable, both for meeting the needs of the student and the workforce.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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