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The costs of control

State government’s ballooning role in higher education is hard to miss in the dozens of bills aimed at fixing what Republican lawmakers claim is broken. But the danger for all Hoosiers is that the regulations and red tape they seek to add run counter to the goals of creating more college graduates and reducing administrative overhead.

As The Journal Gazette’s Niki Kelly reported Sunday, efforts to push students to degree completion in four years are finding resistance from students themselves.

“It only works if you don’t have a job and all you do is go to school,” said Columbia City resident Nick Brewer. “Four-year degree programs are a thing of the past with the economy and tuition costs.”

At 28, Brewer is precisely the target demographic for Indiana’s efforts to increase the number of residents with a college degree. He’s been working toward his degree in hospitality management at IPFW for 10 years. He holds a full-time job, has a mortgage and two small children.

Brewer’s challenge is the struggle to balance school, work, everyday life and finances. It’s not – as some legislators seem to believe – that the university has created undue barriers to keep him in school and charge him more and more tuition.

An angry parent’s complaint of an extra semester or year to pick up a required course doesn’t justify the bureaucratic morass the legislature seeks to create. A fifth year of school might have more to do with a student’s late decision to change majors than with course scheduling. Some academic programs require work co-op experiences that more than make up for an extra semester’s cost in terms of job opportunities.

Proposed legislation that would tie financial aid to progress toward a degree is counter to efforts to encourage non-traditional students to seek a degree. Nor does it serve traditional students, who also should have the opportunity to explore a rich complement of ideas and studies, not just a rigid career track. Employers increasingly complain about college graduates without critical-thinking skills.

“By focusing on degree completion without considering the quality and outcomes of the experiences that accompany that achievement, we are shortchanging ourselves and our students,” wrote Judith Ramaly, a former university president, in a commentary for the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. “A heavy focus on degree completion leaves out the realities of life. ... Institutions that enroll extremely well-prepared students from economically secure and well-educated families will naturally have high completion rates. Institutions that serve the underserved can improve their standing in two ways – by raising their admissions standards to weed out students who are unlikely to succeed without special support or by adopting new and promising practices that foster academic and career success for all their students, regardless of how prepared they are when they enter college.”

Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, filed a bill to require degree mapping, the sequence of courses to finish a degree in eight semesters.

“We’ll now require all universities to sit and meet with every student and explain to them what it will take, from start to finish, to graduate in four years,” Dermody, a small business owner, told Indiana Public Media.

But that requirement won’t come without costs. It means public universities must hire more administrative staff to advise students or require faculty to spend less time on teaching or research and more on advising.

But the real irony of lawmakers’ push for more control of state’s universities is that it comes as taxpayers pick up an ever-smaller share of the cost. In 1980, more than 75 percent of IPFW’s operating support came from the state, while tuition payments made up the balance. By 2005, the percentage had fallen to about 47 percent. This year, taxpayers covered just 39 percent of the cost.

If lawmakers want to increase the bureaucratic requirements for Indiana’s public colleges and universities, they first should increase the share of costs to support them and acknowledge that those same requirements might lead to faster degrees, but fewer of them.