Embedding Equity within Indiana’s Educational Attainment Goals

In early 2020, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education released its fourth strategic plan, Reaching Higher in a State of Change, which provides a vision and a blueprint focused on pathways for student success from the recent high school graduate to the returning adult—ensuring greater economic opportunity and a stronger Indiana.

The Commission identified three priorities—completion, equity and talent—which reflect the state’s commitment to reaching its Big Goal—that by 2025, at least 60 percent of Hoosiers will have a quality degree or credential beyond high school – in a way that supports all Hoosiers and our evolving economy. Currently, Indiana’s attainment rate is 48.3 percent and we recognize to reach 60 percent, Indiana needs to increase educational attainment with low-income, minority and returning adult learners.

To track the state’s progress within college readiness, enrollment and completion, Indiana releases yearly reports. Our reports disaggregate data by race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and geography.

Indiana released the first College Equity Report in 2018 to help shine a brighter light on the disparities in the college pipeline and postsecondary success. The Commission defines equity to mean that life’s circumstances or obstacles should not dictate the opportunity to succeed.

In 2013, we passed a resolution to cut the achievement gap in half by 2018 and close the achievement gap by 2025. We hit the 2018 goal, but we are not on track to close these gaps by 2025. COVID-19 has only underscored and exacerbated long-standing inequities. Like the rest of the nation, Black, Hispanic, rural and low-income communities have been disproportionately impacted.

The need to address educational equity is even more urgent now as economic mobility is inextricably linked to educational attainment. That means we need to double-down on what we know makes a difference, especially addressing affordability and providing targeted student supports. 

Indiana ranks first in the Midwest and fourth in the nation in need-based financial aid with about $350 million distributed annually. One of Indiana’s most impactful financial aid programs is the 21st Century Scholars program. 21st Century Scholars is the state’s early college promise program that provides up to four years of undergraduate tuition to income-eligible students at participating colleges or universities in Indiana, as well as step-by-step guidance and support to make sure they succeed in college and receive support to finish their degree.

While it isn’t the silver bullet, the program is one of Indiana’s best tools with Scholars being the only group of students on track to close the achievement gap by 2025, and on some campuses the gap is already closed.

At the same time, the value proposition of higher education is questioned by our non-Scholars at a rate higher than before. Like much of the nation, Indiana’s college-going rates have declined. We’ve seen a six-percentage point decline in the last five years with 59 percent of recent high school graduates going straight to college.

Hoosier men in particular are questioning the value of higher education, with this being a trend seen across each race and ethnicity. Black men and Latino men have the lowest college-going rates at 43 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

Stories in The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic highlight this trend on the national level. American colleges and universities now enroll roughly six women for every four men. This is the largest gender gap in the history of higher education.

We know that education is a great equalizer, providing opportunity through economic mobility and the best pathway to future opportunity, but it also is the great divider if these gaps are not addressed. How do we go about making meaningful change? By focusing on college readiness and college completion and the statewide partnerships and engagements that can improve those measures.

In all of the Commission’s data reports, we include recommendations and action steps to help us move the needle built around the foundation of our strategic plan. We’re calling for higher education funding that drives dollars to low-income and minority students through an added 25 percent premium for institutions to increase at-risk student completion. We’re also calling for greater leveraging of the 21st Century Scholars program and sustaining targeted outreach to Black and Latino learners. Finally, we must focus on closing equity gaps in the teaching corps as it exists today – and the pipeline of educators coming out of college – so students of color and all students can benefit by having teachers of color through their education journey.

Higher education is uniquely positioned to resolve the issues of disparity in Indiana—to be at the center of the education to workforce pipeline. Led by data-driven analysis, the Commission is continuously developing strategies and efforts to close gaps and increase higher education readiness, access and completion for all.