GROWING ENROLLMENT: Percentage of local high school students heading to college hits lowest level in 13 years

The percentage of Bartholomew County high school students heading to college or pursuing some form of post-secondary education after graduation has fallen to its lowest level in 13 years, according to new figures from the state.

According to figures recently released by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, only 55.4% of Bartholomew County’s high school class of 2020 – the first to graduate during the pandemic – enrolled in university or post-secondary program within one year of graduation.

This is the lowest percentage on record since 2008 and the third straight year of decline in the percentage of Bartholomew County high school graduates enrolling in post-secondary education, the data shows.

Nearly 72% of Bartholomew County’s 2017 high school class enrolled in a post-secondary program within one year of graduation. But that figure fell to 65% for the Class of 2018 and 57.3% for the Class of 2019 – the two classes immediately before the coronavirus pandemic.

National decline

Officials say the local decline mirrors trends seen statewide and nationwide, which they attribute in large part to the costs of higher education and — in 2020 — the pandemic.

The Strada Education Network released new nationwide figures on Wednesday that suggest more than a million fewer students enrolled in college this spring compared to spring 2020 – the fifth straight semester of declining enrollment.

Community colleges were the hardest hit, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the overall drop in enrollment. In addition, requests for federal financial assistance are down almost 9% compared to last year.

In Indiana, 53.4% ​​of the 2020 high school class enrolled in some sort of post-secondary education program within a year of graduation — the sixth straight year of declines and declines by compared to 64.8% among the class of 2015, according to state figures.

“This is a national trend that has been going on for many years,” said John Burnett, president and CEO of the Community Education Coalition, a Columbus-based partnership of education, business and community leaders. , focused on aligning and integrating learning from the region. with economic growth and a better quality of life. “…In terms of enrollment from high school to post-secondary education, things are on the decline across the country.”

Why the decline?

Local officials said many factors could be behind the decrease.

Most notably, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted high schools and colleges across the country. The high school class of 2020 completed its final semester of high school remotely, and many colleges either did not restart in the fall or operated entirely online or in limited capacity, potentially driving more students to take a year off.

Additionally, the cost of higher education, the prospect of student loan debt, as well as an academic shift of not pushing every student into college in recent years may also play a role in lower percentages of local students enrolling in university. , said Jim Roberts, superintendent of Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

“Getting some form of college education is always very important, in our opinion — an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, whatever it is,” Roberts said. “However, we also want students to take advantage of opportunities to train while in high school, which could prepare them for employment immediately after high school. What’s interesting with this is that the best work we do to prepare a student for something to do immediately after high school, it could lower the percentage of students who go to college within the year because they have chosen to move forward and take advantage of this opportunity.

One example, Roberts said, is a welding certificate students can earn while in high school that leads them to jobs after graduation that pay “a decent amount of money.” The vast majority of Bartholomew County high school students take at least one technical education course.

“There was a time, it seemed, where it was, ‘Push the kids into college and let it be the thing,'” Roberts said. “And for a lot of kids that just wasn’t the thing to do, and people were spending a lot of money on it and then didn’t finish school and left school without a degree, spending a lot of money on it. money and had student loan debt. And so as we strive to have less student loan debt and stuff, what are the different steps our kids can take to get the things they need to be successful ?”

What can be done?

However, local officials say they are optimistic despite the downward trend, pointing to the resources in place in the community, including the Columbus Airpark Campus.

Burnett, for her part, said many local resources “bode well for Columbus,” pointing to a new set of services that should soon be available at the Columbus Learning Center.

The new set of services will be offered in a new space at the Columbus Learning Center called “The Bridge,” which, according to a statement from the Southeast Indiana Economic Opportunities through Education (EcO) network, will be a connecting hub for services shared by Ivy Tech, IUPUC and Purdue Polytechnic.

The bridge will include a welcoming space where “navigators” welcome and assist visitors, a free snack bar, career services offices for the three schools, six collaborative meeting rooms, a small conference room that can be reserved “ by anyone on campus or beyond,” a nursing mother’s room, Youth Development Council staff offices, and CEC staff offices.

“Imagine a year from now a student will know…here’s a place I can go for help, help me think about how I’m going to help myself, connect at work while I go to school,” Burnett said. .

Overall, Burnett said an important factor in encouraging enrollment in post-secondary education is “to keep getting better and better at helping students and their families understand the really vital connection between the ‘learning and economic opportunities’.

Roberts, for his part, said he doesn’t “feel concerned at this time” about the local decline.

“We want to continue to increase people’s post-secondary education,” Roberts said, so there will be opportunities in adulthood to get more education, to get an associate’s degree, to get something else to give them more opportunities. , this potential to earn more money as they advance.

“I think we’re just starting to see a different picture with kids and families and choices, and I don’t see that as necessarily bad,” Roberts said.

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