Indiana’s woeful college attainment rate remains among the lowest in the U.S., a problem Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Chris Lowery says the state is working on. 

In both 2012 and 2022, Indiana was ranked 39th in the nation for the number of people who have earned at least an associate degree, Lowery said Monday, April 15 in his annual State of Higher Education address. 

“I said it last year and will say it again now, that is unacceptable,” Lowery told a crowd of education leaders at the Statehouse. 

Recent data from the Lumina Foundation shows that just 53% of Hoosiers between the ages of 25 and 64 held either a college degree or credential as of 2022. That’s well below the goal set by Indiana officials in 2012 to reach 60% by 2025.

That number drops to just 42% when you exclude short-term credentials and certificates, according to Lumina. 

Though that number is dire, Lowery’s overall message was one of hope, both as a virtue and a reference to the Commission for Higher Education’s HOPE Agenda. That acronym stands for Hoosier Opportunities and Possibilities through Education. 

The plan is a strategy to get Indiana ranked among the top 10 states in the nation by 2030 in seven education metrics, including its college-going and completion rates.

Here are four other takeaways from Lowery’s address. 

Short-term credentials, certificates key to leaders’ plan

While Indiana’s attainment of at least an associate degree is low, more and more Hoosiers are earning certificates, short-term credentials and industry certifications. 

[Ivy Tech program is giving formerly incarcerated students another chance.]

Indiana ranks fifth in the nation for those types of credentials, Lowery said. 

Some local colleges, including University of Indianapolis and Butler University, are adding more certificate programs to help boost enrollment by attracting more adult learners. 

College-going rate holds steady, but enrollment is up

Since the college-going rate hit its lowest in a generation in 2020, Indiana has been holding flat at 53% since 2021, the most recent data from the state. 

Credit: Indiana Commission for Higher Education 2023

But it’s not all bleak. According to the commission, college enrollment among all students is up in Indiana for the first time in 13 years. In fall 2023, Indiana colleges and universities saw a 2% enrollment increase across the board, with nearly 5,000 more students starting college. 

[These Marion County school districts are receiving funding to help more students attend college.]

Indiana wants to keep grads in state

In addition to college attainment and completion rates, the Commission is aiming to become a top-10 state for keeping students who graduate in Indiana.

Right now, Indiana ranks 36th, Lowery said. 

A 2022 study from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce found that nearly 40% of graduates from Indiana colleges and universities will move out of state within a year of graduation and over half will leave within five years of graduation. 

In a conversation this month at University of Indianapolis, education and business leaders — including Lowery — said they aim to incentivize college-educated students to stay in Indiana by creating more opportunities for students to get work experience with local companies while in school.

However, there’s some concern that policies passed by the state legislature’s Republican supermajority, like the state’s near-total abortion ban and making laws that target transgender kids, may push college graduates out of Indiana after they complete their degrees.

More opportunities for high school students

In the last year, Indiana also made numerous efforts to increase the number of students who enroll in college or some training program immediately after high school.

Last legislative session, lawmakers made changes to the 21st Century Scholars program, which helps low-income students get full rides at public Indiana colleges and universities if they meet requirements and are enrolled by the end of middle school. 

Chris Lowery, commissioner for Indiana Commission for Higher Education, delivers the State of Higher Education address Monday, April 15, 2024, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. Credit: Doug McSchooler for Mirror Indy

Now, seventh and eighth grade students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch are automatically enrolled in 21st Century Scholars.

More than 46,000 eighth graders were enrolled in the scholarship program last June, Lowery said. In 2022, less than half of eligible students signed up.

Lowery also touted a law passed last year that makes filling out the Free Application for Federal Aid a graduation requirement for high school seniors. As of April 5, only 28% of the class of 2024 had completed the form, according to the National College Attainment Network.

Despite widespread delays and issues with this year’s revamped FAFSA, the commission announced Monday it would not move back the April 15 priority deadline to receive state aid.

Last fall, the commission also initiated what’s called a pre-admissions strategy, where the state matches requirements from universities and stats from applicants and lets students know which colleges they can be admitted to based on their grades and test scores. 

The commission plans to continue the initiative for the high school class of 2025. Students at Indianapolis Public Schools with a GPA of at least 3.0 are now automatically being admitted to IU Indianapolis, an initiative that began with the class of 2024.

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