The percentage of Indiana high school graduates who go to college has been shrinking in recent years — but the rate dropped precipitously during the first year of the pandemic, falling 6 percentage points to 53%.

That’s startling by any measure. But consider this: The Indiana Commission for Higher Education described 2020’s college-going rate as “the lowest rate — and sharpest decline — in at least a generation.”

Chris Lowery, the state’s higher ed commissioner, called the decline “alarming.”

“And we have to treat it as such,” he said when the agency released the numbers. “We know individual lives and the state’s economy depend on and thrive with an educated society.”

He’s right that the state needs to act now, but stemming the drop in Hoosier high school graduates who choose college will take a multi-pronged effort by the state, universities, high schools and parents.

WE DON’T pretend to have all the answers here, but there are steps that seem like good places to start.

First, the Legislature should change the 21st Century Scholars program to automatically enroll middle school students who qualify. The program pays college tuition for students from lower-income households who keep up their grades and complete college-prep classes. But students who don’t sign up in middle school are ineligible to do so later. An automatic enrollment (or an opportunity to enroll later) could help students start to think about college sooner and afford it when it’s time to go.

Seventh-grade teacher Ronak Shah explains the issue more eloquently in a Viewpoint column on page 15A.

The 21st Century Scholars program is one way to attack the problem of rising tuition. But there are others. Purdue University has offered an example of how an exemplary school can hold down the price of attendance, including tuition and fees.

Outgoing President Mitch Daniels made freezing tuition a priority and, despite skeptics initially and now, he has done it. This year, Purdue has been rewarded with record enrollment on its West Lafayette campus. There are, no doubt, many factors for its growth, but 11 years of flat tuition certainly hasn’t hurt.

WHAT PURDUE has achieved by promoting its tuition freeze is confidence that it’s being respectful of the high price tag students pay to earn a degree. That doesn’t mean Purdue is cheap; nor does it mean that everyone can afford to attend. But the emphasis on cost offers some reassurance to students and parents who are otherwise facing a system where prices are incredibly hard to determine.

The higher ed commission has also recommended additional funding for the state’s Frank O’Bannon Grant, which offers need-based aid to students at public and private colleges. The grant helps more than 30,000 Hoosier students afford school, but funding was cut during the Great Recession. The commission proposes to increase the maximum award by 35%.

There are so many more ideas for boosting college-going rates, but there’s one more we want to emphasize: Middle and high schools need money to hire and train counselors who can help students and their families prepare for and navigate the difficult path that is higher education.

These ideas, of course, are just a start. What matters is that state officials and the Legislature make the issue a top priority.

Indianapolis Business Journal

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