This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.

Across Indiana, colleges are talking to you.

On the interstate, Ivy Tech Community College assures: “Whichever way you’re going, we’re here for you.” Along the Indianapolis streets, Earlham College promises to be “the college that will change your life so you can change the world.” At the airport, Ball State University keeps it simple: “We fly.”

The bottom line? They really, really want you — especially now.

Across the country, new data out this week show, college enrollments are falling. Undergraduate numbers were down 3 percent in fall 2021 from the year before; since fall of 2019, they’ve fallen 6.6 percent.

In Indiana, one big challenge — even before the pandemic — has been a steady decline in college-going rates from high school. Back in 2014, 65 percent of the state’s graduates went on to college. In 2019, 59 percent did. 

Billboards of Indiana. (Photos by Sara’s indulgent family members)

Almost all of that drop can be attributed to men, says Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s Commissioner for Higher Education. Barely half of Indiana’s male high-school graduates now go to college.

“The value proposition of higher education is very stressed right now,” Lubbers told me last month.

Ask people why they aren’t going, and here’s what you hear, she says:

  • First, they’re worried about affordability.
  • Second, they don’t see how learning is connected to the work they want to do. And in an uncertain economy, taking a $17-an-hour job looks pretty good right now.
  • Third, there’s a lot of “rugged individualism.” People don’t want to be told what to do. They think higher ed is just trying to get their money. And the government seems far removed from their lives.

Indiana is one of the most manufacturing-intensive states in the nation, Lubbers says, and the economy is changing. That means Indiana needs to change, too: “We’re in the process of changing the culture of a state so people have a better understanding that economic mobility depends on education and training beyond high school.”

A New Open Campus Partner

An Indianapolis scholarship aims to help adults like Tapiwa Mzumara, center, return to college to finish their degree. AJ Mast for Chalkbeat

We’re writing about Indiana this week not just because it’s where I grew up, but because we’re adding coverage of the state to our network. We’re excited to announce a new partnership with Chalkbeat Indiana, where Stephanie Wang is taking on the higher ed beat. 

Her first story focuses on Indianapolis’ effort to tackle one piece of the state’s enrollment challenge: how to get people who dropped out of college back to class and to a degree. 

One barrier: unpaid bills. “These aren’t the colossal student loan debts that have consumed millions of Americans,” Stephanie writes, “but smaller missed payments to colleges for classes, fees, textbooks, or other supplies.”

Out of about 82,000 people across Indiana who owe money to Ivy Tech, the statewide community college system, the median outstanding balance is $550. That amount may seem small, Stephanie reports, but it’s dream-ending for some students.

The Indy Achieves program tries to fix that by giving grants to local students at Ivy Tech’s Indianapolis campus and IUPUI to eliminate the unpaid tuition and book bills that lock them out of re-enrolling.

It’s helped. But, of course, it’s just one piece of a puzzle, Ivy Tech Indianapolis’ chancellor told Stephanie.

“I think so many people are afraid to return because they’re worried, ‘Well, I’ve been out too long,’” Lorenzo Esters said. “When we can connect the meaning or purpose of that learning to potential work, then they’re more likely to return.”

—Sara Hebel

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Humans of California Colleges

Vivienne Aguilar, Ally Baca, and Mikael Honzell

Last fall, Sara and I got another chance to do one of our favorite things: drive around the country and talk with people about college. This time we were in California’s Central Valley for a project we’re calling Postcards from the College Journey.

We’re listening to Californians tell their stories of getting in, dropping out, and making it through college. We just published the first round of these interviews — which we’re working on with Naomi Harris, our national reporter focused on racial equity, and Victoria Franco, a California-based reporter. We’ll be publishing more of these conversations throughout the rest of school year.

They provide a glimpse at college experiences and attitudes that often get less attention. And they’re accompanied by striking portraits from Salgu Wissmath, a Sacramento-based photographer.

—Scott Smallwood

Our Newest Newsletters

Sign up to get biweekly newsletters from our three national reporters. Nick Fouriezos explores the role of college in rural America. Charlotte West is looking at the future of higher ed in prisons. And Naomi Harris is focused on race and equity in higher education.

Here’s the latest from them:

College Inside: The pendulum effect
College Inside: The pendulum effect
As we look forward to Pell restoration in 2023, I’ve been wondering what it was like in 1994 when college programs across the country were suddenly shuttered after a federal law eliminated financial aid for people in prisons.

Mile Markers: A rural town with two HBCUs and no movie theater
Those two universities present tremendous opportunities for rural Orangeburg, S.C., but the city has long let the area around them deteriorate. A new project brings hope of making this into more of a college town that serves its students.

The Intersection: What gets in the way
The Intersection: What gets in the way
In San Joaquin County, California, only about one in five adults has a bachelor’s degree. We talked with students and former students there about their relationship with college.

Thank You!

As the new year starts, we’re grateful for all the readers and supporters who helped us exceed our year-end fundraising goal. We started in November aiming to raise $30,000. With the support of the NewsMatch campaign and our donors, we raised $42,000. Thank you again!

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Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus