New model

In the darkest days of the Great Recession, enrollment at Ivy Tech exploded, allowing perhaps one in three unemployed Hoosiers to pursue an education. The women and men who made that happen in the classroom and administrative offices deserve our thanks.

But in 2016, not all is well in what might be our most important college.

Unfortunately, the Ivy Tech system responded to this huge rush of students with an overabundance of construction. Ivy Tech now has more than twice the physical space it could possibly need scattered on more than 110 sites around the state.

What started as an ambitious effort to offer a wide course of study turned into an over-promise and under-delivery of services. Sadly, graduation rates are in the single digits, and worse still, the school has struggled to recruit and retain its most important contribution to success — its faculty.

This column is not about casting blame. Nearly everyone in Indiana has a stake in Ivy Tech’s success and has shared their opinion. And this economist won’t speak ill of anyone who forecasted poorly through the Great Recession. Still, the time has come for Ivy Tech to embrace a new model.

Around the nation, the two-year college serves many roles from mitigating poor high schools to offering a gateway to a four-year degree. But here in Indiana, it seems clear that Ivy Tech has to be something different. Indiana needs a community and technical college system that can deliver a career-focused education (not necessarily a degree) across two- or three-dozen occupations in 50 different locations to 40,000 young people each year without burdening them with a car payment-sized debt.

This is simple, but not easy. To do this, Ivy Tech has to nurture its most important asset, its faculty, while divesting itself of unneeded facilities. Ivy Tech will also have to listen closely to both businesses and students about their needs. Fortunately, Ivy Tech has a model for this transformation. It is in Tennessee. I am familiar with that system based on my experience teaching economics at two of Tennessee’s community colleges in the mid-1990s, and I have followed their later success.

Over the past 20 years or so, the Tennessee system has built what is almost universally regarded as the nation’s best community technical college system. The graduation rate exceeds 90 percent. The median educational debt is a stunning zero dollars and nearly all graduates take jobs in their chosen occupation. James King, the man who designed and led this transformation, is now a compelling finalist for the top job at Ivy Tech.

Tennessee’s stunning record is due to leadership that focused on student success while empowering the faculty to make a difference in the lives of their students. The triumph of these efforts mean that businesses are heavy supporters of the Tennessee community college system, including the highly respected ‘Volkswagen University.’ This makes the system among the least expensive community colleges (for taxpayers and students) in the country. Indiana does many things well, but we desperately need this model from Tennessee.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to