When Precious Johnson enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, I was horrified. It’s been years since she graduated from high school, and she’s been a single mom raising an autistic son.
Johnson, 40, recently recalled: “I was trying to figure out how to juggle this with my son. How am I going to do this homework? I still have to go to work in the morning.”
Johnson’s challenges may be unusual on many four-year college campuses. But community colleges are designed to educate students just like themselves — adults who have complex lives and responsibilities outside of school.
For a long time, Indiana’s community college system seemed to fail these students. When Johnson earned her associate’s degree in 2014, she was defying the odds. Less than 30 percent of her peers have earned degrees or certifications after six years of enrolment. And fewer than 1 in 20 Ivy Tech students graduated on time.
But over the past decade, Ivy Tech, which serves about 74,000 students across the state, has made steady gains in completion rates. Ivy Tech’s two-year completion rates have steadily improved from a dismal 5% for students starting in 2012 to 14% for the most recent cohort.
“Right now, we’re still operating from a very low base, but all trends are going in the right direction,” said Teresa Lubbers, who served as Indiana’s commissioner for higher education for 13 years and left that position in March.
Ivy Tech has a double mission. On the other hand, she needs to serve her students. But it is also an essential tool for economic development in a country where there are more jobs requiring post-secondary education than qualified workers.
The community college system has seen a significant drop in enrollment in recent years, reducing the number of qualified workers they teach. Improving outcomes for students who enroll is another way Ivy Tech can help educate more workers — and prepare more people for good jobs.
It also comes as Indiana faces the largest drop in high school graduates entering college in a generation.
Lubbers and leaders at Ivy Tech point out the many changes the Indiana system has brought about over the years as it adopts practices backed by research or has shown success at other community colleges around the country.
The heart of the old system
Remedial education was one of the first and most important areas that were reformed. These courses usually cover the same subjects as high school and do not offer college credit.
Lubbers said in an interview before she left the office that therapy classes weren’t working.
“You put people on stand-alone courses of therapy, and they use their financial assistance, it takes time, and they are less likely to succeed,” she said. “The conclusion was, we’d better do something different.”
Ivy Tech has restructured the reform, also known as developmental education, to allow students to take core college-level courses once they are enrolled and to push fewer students into remedial classes. This shift was part of a national movement.
Developmental education has some problems, said Susan Bickerstaff, a researcher at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. One was that the placement tests used in schools to check whether students were ready for college-level math and English were not very reliable.
“Under the old system, we were putting too many students into development education,” Bickerstaff said.
Students could be paid to take several semesters of developmental classes before they reached the college subjects they were interested in.
“College can really shrink if you’re in your first semester basically studying what you did in high school,” Bickerstaff said.
So Ivy Tech has made it easy for students to show they’re ready for college-level work, using evidence such as high school grades and college entrance exam scores. Now, students who have been placed in remedial classes have the option to study and retake the assessment.
These changes led to a staggering decrease in treatment.
The number of Ivy Tech students identified as needing therapy fell to about 13 percent in 2019 from about 67 percent in 2012, according to data from the Indiana Commission on Higher Education.
“It’s a massive success for us,” said Kara Munro, who was dean at Ivy Tech from 2018 to January. “It represented a huge shift, at least in community colleges, about the way we talked about…student success.”
‘Very fast’ cycles
For students who need help, Ivy Tech has adopted a model called Prerequisites, which allows students to simultaneously enroll in developmental and college math classes and English language classes.
This is the approach taken in Tiffany Butler’s English class.
Butler said English 111 is the department’s “bread and butter,” because most students must take it for associate’s degrees.
It’s a college-wide semester. But if students need therapy, they take a core class “to help give them the support they need to be successful,” Butler said.
One of the students in both grades is Moise Toussaint, who immigrated from Haiti.
“I am very motivated to achieve this goal,” said Toussaint, who needs an English pass for the Ivy Tech nursing program. But it’s hard to keep up with the pace.
“It’s very fast. And you have to do a lot of things at the same time for both of them,” he said. “Then I have work too—I’m working at the same time.”
The class is a Toussaint sprint because it’s only eight weeks long, rather than a traditional 16-week session. This is another change that Ivy Tech embraced a few years ago: It shortened courses in an effort to prevent students from dropping out and help them finish courses sooner.
Butler said the eight-week courses can be difficult for students who return to school after years away, because it can take time to learn the skills they need to succeed as students. Some students, for example, don’t even have laptops when they sign up.
“For students who are focused and ready for it, the eight-week format is great because it gets them in and out,” Butler said. “But it’s not for everyone.”
However, Ivy Tech Provost Dean McCurdy said this is one of the changes that has helped the community college system continue to improve outcomes for students. He said students are less likely to be interrupted by a problem outside of school when taking shorter courses.
McCurdy said students in short classes are more likely to earn passing grades of C or better, compared to traditional 16-week classes. In the next semester, about three-quarters of the courses offered by Ivy Tech will be eight-week courses.
McCurdy said the system is looking for new ways to improve outcomes, such as motivating students to take steps that will help them succeed. These include meeting with a counselor and filling out an application for financial assistance.
“We know that if students do these things it helps them maintain momentum and stay enrolled,” he said. “We always work backwards from the results we look forward to.”
The changes at Ivy Tech fueled dramatic gains. But Ivy Tech now faces another pressing challenge as it tries to deal with significant registry losses.
And even with on-time completion rates improving to 14 percent, there’s still a long way to go. Most students enrolled in Ivy Tech still do not earn degrees.