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Bettering the odds

College completion is a goal worth backing

College costs attract much attention, but it’s the cost of not attending that should have Hoosiers worried.

The latest report from Pew Research Center finds that millennials with college degrees in 2012 earned about $17,500 more than their peers with only a high school diploma. The gap has grown by about $2,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars since Generation Xers were the same age; almost $10,000 since early baby boomers were.

The figures lend urgency to Indiana’s goal of 60 percent of residents earning a degree or certification – the same “Big Goal” sought by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership – and they emphasize the need for methods to meet the goal. The Commission for Higher Education’s College Completion Report offers valuable information to that end.

The just-released report, outlined by The Journal Gazette’s Julie Crothers in a story Wednesday, finds that only about a third of Indiana students who enroll in four-year public colleges graduate on time. For two-year public schools, fewer than 1 in 10 students graduate on time.

Completion is the key, of course, and the commission deserves credit for acknowledging that higher education can be slowed or interrupted for plenty of reasons. Some students must work to pay for college, taking fewer courses and extending the time needed to finish. Some students transfer or switch majors, both of which require more time.

The report makes the important point, however, that time is the enemy in college completion. Each extra year of study costs more in tuition and lost wages and also decreases the likelihood of completion. Taxpayer-provided financial assistance could stretch further with on-time completion, as well.

The report stops short of offering recommendations, but it’s not hard to translate its findings into action steps:

•Help students finish on time. Expand counseling at both the high school and college levels to inform students of study and career options and to help them choose the institution that’s the best fit. Provide adequate funding for public universities and Ivy Tech to offer services to help students stay in school.

•Assist students in attending full time. Full-time students are nearly twice as likely as part-time students to successfully earn a degree, so financial assistance should be targeted at the former. Fort Wayne’s Questa Scholars program is one promising model.

•Target services to low-income and minority students, who lag in graduation rates.

The report could be improved if it were expanded to include independent and for-profit colleges. Some of the latter charge outrageous tuition and post dismal student outcomes. There are proprietary schools operating in Indiana with troubling records of fraud and abuse. Because they target low-income, first-generation college students in their marketing efforts, the schools sometimes trap students in worthless programs and exhaust their financial aid, saddling them with lifetime debt.

Some states are cracking down on proprietary schools, but Indiana is not among them. College completion figures for the for-profit schools, in particular, could steer at-risk students to more affordable and higher quality colleges. For taxpayers, investments in student aid will be better spent. For students, the likelihood of a college degree and higher earnings increases.