Indiana lawmakers are considering a bill that would require four-year public universities to look into offering associate degrees to some students — a reversal of more than two decades of policy designed to make Ivy Tech Community College and Vincennes University the primary providers of two-year degrees in Indiana. 

Currently in committee, Senate Bill 8 is a priority bill for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and part of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s legislative agenda. The bill, authored by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, proposes a number of other initiatives to boost Indiana’s college-going and completion rates.

A third of Indiana college students won’t complete college in six years, and several Indiana public institutions have six-year completion rates under 50%. The goal is to give students who stop short of completing a bachelor’s degree something for their time: an associate degree. 

The legislation would require every public university in Indiana to submit a report to the state’s Commission for Higher Education examining how to offer associate degrees to these students.

Other components of Senate Bill 8 include:

  • Mandating that high schools offer state-approved college credit classes
  • Requiring public universities to look into how to offer more three-year bachelor’s degrees potentially by using credits earned in high school or summer classes
  • Expanding “reverse transfer,” a program that awards associate degrees to students after they transfer out of community college 

This effort to confer associate degrees, said Commissioner for Higher Education Chris Lowery, is a way to help improve earning potential and job outcomes for students. 

“They attended college, maybe they could have 70, 80, 90 (credit) hours of work, sometimes with debt, and they don’t have anything to show for it, even though what they have earned is equivalent to an associate degree,” he told Mirror Indy.

Indiana’s not the first state to consider offering this type of degree. Colorado passed a law in 2021 that would allow colleges to award associate degrees to students who dropped out, Chalkbeat reported. However, Lowery said it’s too soon to know whether the program increased employment opportunities and bachelor’s degree attainment. 

A return of sorts

This is a pivot from recent education policy in Indiana, where four-year universities have focused on bachelor’s degrees while community colleges have specialized in certificates and two-year degree programs. But just two decades ago, educational missions in the state looked different. 

When Indiana State University Provost Christopher Olsen joined the university in 1999, the four-year college offered some associate degrees, as did Indiana University and Purdue University.

But in May 2001, the Commission for Higher Education decided that four-year universities should remove most associate degree programs in favor of building up the state’s community college network — what would become the various Ivy Tech campuses. 

“It’s about identifying what those missions are and what the school does well,” Olsen said. “And at the time, the decision really seemed to be that two-year degrees were not what we were set up to do.”

Today, IUPUI offers just six associate degree programs, all highly specialized and two of which are fully online. 

Allowing four-year universities to award more associate degrees —- even in very specific circumstances —  raises questions about what this could mean for Ivy Tech and Vincennes University.

Neither institution spoke specifically for or against the legislation, but Ivy Tech did comment at a public hearing Wednesday, Jan. 17 at the Statehouse. 

A sign over Illinois Street displays Ivy Tech’s strategic plan motto — “Higher education at the speed of life” — on Dec. 14, 2023. Credit: Claire Rafford

MJ Michalak, vice president of legal and public affairs at Ivy Tech, said in a hearing before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee that Ivy Tech remains committed to its mission established years ago. 

“For 20 years … the state has supported mission differentiation in higher education — asking Ivy Tech to serve as the state’s community college and point of entry for workforce or transfer, and along with Vincennes University, serving as the associate degree-granting institutions of the state with our four-year partners focusing on four-year bachelor’s degrees, graduate degrees and research missions,” Michalak said in her testimony. 

“Ivy Tech’s mission is guided by statute for workforce alignment and transfer.”

Addressing curriculum differences

Should the studies proceed, the commission will set some boundaries and frameworks for how to best explore the role of associate degrees at public four-year colleges and universities.

Some of the topics colleges could address in their respective studies are curriculum differences between associate and bachelor’s degrees, as well as how to determine which students would be eligible to receive the two-year credential and the average number of credit hours a student achieves before dropping out.

The first two years of college are often full of general studies classes and major prerequisites. 

At Ivy Tech, the most common associate degrees awarded through the reverse transfer program are general studies, liberal arts and business administration, Michalak said. 

The general degrees provide a credential but are less applicable to what she called “high-wage, high-demand jobs.”

Degree attainment, Olsen said, is about what the student has learned and would be dependent on which classes were completed and not simply about reaching a credit threshold. Still, he’s open to studying the matter with an eye toward filling gaps in the state’s education and workforce needs.

“I absolutely want to be respectful of what Ivy Tech and Vincennes have done because they’ve created very logical, well-thought out, approved two-year degree programs,” Olsen said. 

Next actions

Ultimately, the commission’s hope — should the bill pass in its current iteration — is that students who may receive an associate degree after stopping college will be more employable. 

“A credential signals to a marketplace what someone has to offer, and the degree to which we can be supportive of that work too, is important,” Lowery said.

Members of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee will amend and vote on Senate Bill 8 in its next meeting, committee chair Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, said last week. 

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.