New Indiana initiatives bolster efforts to get more Hoosier students educated beyond high school

By Casey Smith | Indiana Capital Chronicle

For The Tribune

Thousands of letters from Indiana’s higher education intuitions have already been delivered to Hoosier students as part of a new statewide program that seeks to put more kids on track for college.

The partnership between the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (CHE) and nearly 40 colleges and universities — equal to 80% of all those in Indiana — will ensure that rising high school seniors across the state gain “pre-admission” from at least three schools.

Education officials said during a CHE meeting Thursday that 327 high schools have so far opted to participate in the “Indiana Pre-Admissions: Your Path to College” initiative. As of September, more than 57,000 students have received a letter matching them with colleges and universities.

The number of pre-admissions students earned ranged anywhere from three to 38. The average number of pre-admitted schools listed on each student’s letter was 28, said Michelle Ashcraft, CHE’s associate commissioner for K-12 strategy.

The 2024 graduating class will be the first to participate. CHE staff said they hope to expand the program more in the coming academic years.

“This is just a really great opportunity to be able to tell students that they can go to school here in Indiana, and there’s going to be ways to afford it,” Ashcraft said.

Getting more Hoosiers to college

CHE matched students to schools based on their GPAs and SAT scores.

Students are not promised direct admission to colleges and universities, however. Decisions are contingent upon maintaining eligibility criteria and taking the next steps to properly apply and enroll.

 Michelle Ashcraft, CHE’s associate commissioner for K-12 strategy (Photo from Ashcraft’s LinkedIn) 

After getting their pre-admissions letter, students must still apply to schools via the Common App or on institutional websites. Soon-to-be-graduates will also be required to complete the FAFSA, as mandated by state lawmakers.

Still, CHE officials said the goal is to help students become more aware of their college options and help Hoosier students gain more access to financial aid.

The program is largely a response to Indiana’s declining college-going rate. Just over half of Indiana’s 2020 high school graduates chose to go to college. Five years ago, 65% of Indiana’s high school graduates pursued higher education.

Starting the college application process earlier means students are more likely to get grants and scholarships. Oftentimes, having those details ironed out in advance makes advanced education more attainable.

Expanding College Core access

CHE officials are additionally increasing efforts to give even more Hoosier high schoolers the option to earn college-level credit while still in secondary school — an opportunity that could ultimately boost the number of students who pursue some form of higher education.

For the 2023-24 academic year, at least 222 high schools and 16 postsecondary institutions will offer the Indiana College Core.

That’s an increase from September 2022 — which marked 10 years of the Indiana College Core — when 141 high schools offered the program. It’s also a 70% increase over the 2021-22 academic year, when 81 schools reportedly offered the College Core.

The curriculum consists of a 30-credit-hour block of general education courses that transfer between all of Indiana’s public institutions and some private colleges.

Those Core credits can be earned through a combination of dual credit, Advanced Placement courses and dual enrollment classes.

Recent data shows nearly 2,100 high school students earned the Indiana College Core in 2021, and about 90% of those students went on to attend college, according to CHE. Education officials maintain that number should be much higher, though.

To help enlist more schools — and make more students and families aware of the College Core option — CHE unveiled its new My College Core, a website and planning tool that launched last month.

The site is designed to be a one-stop shop for information on the Indiana College Core, official said. The site allows students, families and school counselors and administrators to access information regarding college-level coursework, financial aid information, and transfer options.

The website also includes a planning tool to help students build dual credit plans that align to their chosen career pathway, which education officials said will help them make the most of the college credit earned in high school. Plans are specific to the college-level coursework offered at their high school, and the site allows students to share their plans with parents and school counselors.

As students complete coursework they can use the tool to track their progress toward completing the Indiana College Core certificate and the steps needed to earn it. Postsecondary providers will additionally be able to access a dashboard with information about what pathways are more sought after by students.

“The idea for this tool is that we just literally wanted to bring transparency to the dual credit opportunities, so students can use that to learn more about the (College Core),” said Jessica Barrett, CHE’s director of academic affairs and transfer. “We really wanted to bring transparency to the different pathways students can earn.”

Capital projects approved

The CHE board additionally approved 13 new capital projects totaling more than $520 million across four Hoosier higher education institutions.

 Nancy Jordan, Indiana Commission for Higher Education board member (Photo courtesy CHE’s website) 

They included funds for the expansion of a research building on the Indiana University School of Medicine campus in Indianapolis and renovations to Indiana State University’s Center for Technology, Engineering, and Design, as well as a new residence hall on Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus. Purdue officials also got the greenlight to construct an additional 10,000-square-foot airport terminal near the West Lafayette campus.

Some of the projects are funded all or in part by federal grants or donations. About $50 million across all the capital projects is expected to come from universities’ operating funds, which are largely financed by students and taxpayers.

The board unanimously approved each project on Thursday.

But board member Nancy Jordan defended the appropriations, emphasizing that project proposals are fully vetted before the board approves them.

She pointed to a Wall Street Journal article published last month that detailed “unfettered spending sprees” at some U.S. public institutions, where students foot the bill for expensive new buildings and programs. No Indiana schools were directly mentioned in the report, but Jordan maintained that Hoosier colleges are still accountable for their spending and budgets.

Jordan said CHE’s budget committee members has met to “look at the financials” of some of Indiana’s universities

“These are thoughtful projects, and there’s a significant amount of gift funding and non-operating kinds of funding and grants that our universities put forth in these projects,” Jordan said Thursday. “The committee does look at these thoroughly, we do not rubber stamp these. There are rigorous conversations on some of them.”

“We should challenge ourselves and our universities when we see something that looks a bit out of line, but I commend our universities for the projects they bring forward,” she continued. “They’re well-documented, in terms of need, and the funding sources are very clear.”

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