I recently read economist Morton Marcus’ piece, “Ivy Tech: Our Hope, Our Failure.” I was interested in his perspective enough to provide some comments as a local business owner who understands the important role higher education plays in the success of companies here in Indiana.
Marcus’ piece was a response to recent criticism lobbed at Ivy Tech by those who measure the college’s success based on graduation rates alone. While I and my peers agree that graduation rates can and must improve, we also continue to be frustrated by such a limiting definition of student success.
That’s why I was so heartened by Marcus’ piece, in which he accurately accounted for some of the primary considerations often ignored by some. These errors of omission become even more troublesome when they lead to Ivy Tech having placed upon it, in Marcus’ words, “the burden of impossible expectations.” Three of his points are especially prescient:
1. Those who enroll at Ivy Tech often need time and support to ready themselves to do college-level work. As an open-access college, Ivy Tech must accommodate all students who satisfy minimal criteria upon entry, regardless of their preparedness for postsecondary education. This is a part of its mission that it embraces willfully and eagerly, but it often works against the college when students are given an artificial deadline that’s not aligned with their needs.
Currently, nearly 70 percent of their students need remediation in one of more areas, which slows their progress toward graduation. Unfortunately, this is the rule, not the exception. As Marcus accurately notes, “Some high school students are ready by their senior year to take college credit courses. But these are the few, the academic elite.”
2. A college education is often as much about the journey as the destination. Just as Ivy Tech embraces its role as an open-access college, it also welcomes the opportunity to be known as a catalyst for developing Indiana’s workforce. However, Ivy Tech also accepts that for some students, a college education provides only an indirect path toward a career. As Marcus aptly notes, “The mission of education, in the minds of state government officials, has changed from imparting the wisdom of civilization to preparing youth for that first pay check. A college student without a confirmed career orientation is considered a wastrel.”
Again, I would suggest that the college certainly seeks to provide students with career skills, but it also accepts that some of them may need more time to first discover where they’re headed.
3. Each of our students defines “success” in different ways. This point speaks to the greatest misunderstanding about Ivy Tech when it comes to completion. As mentioned above, many students enroll at Ivy Tech with no intention of leaving with a credential. They likely need to find a more affordable way to start college before transferring to a four-year institution.
This trend is meted out by Ivy Tech’s tremendous success in helping Indiana families save $32 million annually in avoided tuition costs as a result of transfer. Nevertheless, many of the community college detractors insist upon using graduation as the only measuring stick, a flawed, incomplete, and — quite honestly — lazy means of evaluating an institution with such a complex mission.
As Marcus says, “A student may be in Ivy Tech for a short period of time and still be counted as a success, if we drop the expectation of certification. The issue is not for the students to meet the demands of the college, but for the college to meet the needs of the students.”
This is, in fact, precisely why Ivy Tech exists: to serve students. While it’s certain that Ivy Tech must help them pursue goals beyond their immediate reach, we also must insist that they — and not elected officials, pundits or those with opaque political agendas — determine what success means to them. Perhaps Marcus’ understanding of this fact, from a distance, represents a shift in how others will look at the issue.
It must also be noted that Marcus’ piece also included some criticism of Ivy Tech. While this makes his praise all the more credible since he is clearly not an apologist for the college, it also reflects some additional misconceptions about Ivy Tech. Make no mistake about it: since Tom Snyder joined the college in 2007, things have changed dramatically. One need only look at the decision made earlier this year to merge two of our regions to know that his administration is a good steward of the taxpayer’s investment.
With time, we hope that Marcus’ opinions on these matters evolve to a place consistent with where President Snyder has taken Ivy Tech.
The truth is, the college should welcome such scrutiny because it is warranted given how critical Ivy Tech is to Indiana’s future, and it leads to the insights Marcus makes about the complexity of the community college mission. There’s a clear difference, however, between those high expectations and what Marcus calls the “impossible expectations” to which we’ve been subjected. The former is to ensure that Ivy Tech continues in ways that benefit its students; the latter serve no one well.
What Ivy Tech should seek is understanding instead of finger-pointing and collaboration more than confrontation. Everyone should work together to put students first and give them a say in determining how their success should be measured. Let’s look at Marcus’ words as a starting point for a fair conversation about Ivy Tech — and what it can become.
Terry Anker is owner of The Anker Consulting Group