A statewide initiative funded by federal COVID-relief dollars has helped thousands of Indiana high school students finish up college credits and other high-value credentials, new data shows.
The hopeful sign comes as state leaders continue to stress a need for more Hoosiers to earn post-high school credentials, whether at two- and four-year colleges, or through attainment of technical degrees and certifications.
Crossing the Finish Line initially intended to aid high-schoolers whose ability to obtain college credits was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. That included courses needed for the Indiana College Core or other high-value credentials.
Roughly $6 million was earmarked to help students who were just a few credits away from completing those credentials, allowing them to take classes in the spring and summer semesters for free through Ivy Tech or Vincennes University.
When it began in 2021, the program helped 1,900 high school juniors and seniors across 275 Indiana high schools obtain credits for free over the summer, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
So far in 2022, Crossing the Finish Line has served another 3,300 Indiana students at more than 335 high schools and career centers — a 71% increase in participation.
“We saw very clearly that there’s not only a need, but there’s a genuine interest from students and families who want to complete these credentials of value while in high school,” said Katie Jenner, Indiana’s Secretary of Education. “We know that educational attainment really matters for the individual and their quality of life, health, future wages … These credentials of value are such that no one can ever take it away from them.”
Ongoing challenges to get Hoosiers better educated
Many students who participated in the program weren’t previously aware that they needed just a few more credits to complete a credential, Jenner said.
She pointed to the state’s most recent data showing that around 76% of seniors at Indiana high schools said they intended to continue pursuing some form of higher education after graduating.
Indiana’s college going rate shows that only 53% actually make it actually there, however.
“That’s about 23% of an Indiana graduating class who have the dream to continue learning and continuing their education, who don’t make it there right after high school,” Jenner said.
But education leaders also recognized that about 64% of Hoosier graduates left high school with college credit — the average student earned roughly 13.5 college credits. A short-term technical credential in Indiana can be earned with as few as 15 to 18 credits.
Jenner noted, too, that many other students were “inches away” from earning the 30 credits needed for the Indiana College Core. The curriculum consists of a 30-credit-hour block of general education courses that transfer between all of Indiana’s public institutions and some private colleges.
Ivy Tech estimated that some 16,000 Indiana high school students were “near-completers” in 2021.
The data made state officials hopeful that providing increased support for those high schoolers could push more “over the finish line” — and encourage them to seek even more education after graduation.
“While in high school, many of our students may not have a parent or family member with a college education, and by having the opportunity to get that in high school — I’ve seen it with my own eyes — they have a new level of hope and realize that they can absolutely get a higher education beyond a high school diploma,” Jenner said. “They even learn strategies on how to best navigate that college system when you think about affordability of college.”
Last year, 1,851 Crossing the Finish Line students completed coursework at Ivy Tech. Of those, 714 completed their studies in 2021, and another 900 wrapped up in 2022.
Rebecca Rahschulte, vice president of K-14 initiatives and statewide partnerships at Ivy Tech, said most students used the Ivy Tech courses to complete the Indiana College Core. Others who pursued technical certificates are already working, including as certified nursing assistants, welders and IT specialists.
“We’re really helping employers who have demand for students graduating with these industry-recognized certifications, and so we’re helping to produce that robust workforce that Indiana is looking for, and we are making sure that what we’re providing is aligned with the needs of industry,” Rahschulte said. “A lot of our efforts are backward design from what industry is saying that they want and need in a graduate. We’re helping local economies — we’re helping the state’s economy — by helping students earn these credentials.”
Rahschulte said the program has also meant “huge” cost-savings for students and their families. By going through Crossing the Finish Line, students saved a cumulative $2.5 million on books and tuition fees, according to the IDOE.
The benefits of earning more credentials
Within northern Indiana’s Elkhart Community Schools, at least 20 students were able to earn associate’s degrees or complete the College Core curriculum through Crossing the Finish Line, said Gail Draper, the district’s counseling director.
“We’re a huge manufacturing town. So if you have students graduating with no credentials and no focus for the future, a lot of them just leave and work at a base level factory position,” Draper said. “We are teaching them and helping them see that even if they choose to go into the manufacturing field, there are better jobs for them if they get those credentials done.”
The same goes for students in Northwest Indiana, where Crossing the Finish Line helped dozens more students get better-equipped to work high-demand jobs closer to home, said Lauren Dado, director of the Hammond Area Career Center.
“Up here, we’re really invested in our regional workforce development. It’s so important that we re-instill regional pride and remove the desire to leave from our kids,” Dado said. “By giving them these gateways to a productive, contributing, regional citizenship, we’re retaining and bolstering our Northwest Indiana workforce, economy and culture, which is the most important thing of it all.”
Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Chris Lowery additionally maintained it’s imperative that more Hoosier students earn college credits in high school because it makes them more likely to enroll in college and go on to earn degrees or technical certificates.
That could mean a helpful boost to Indiana’s overall college-going rate — recent data indicates only half of Indiana’s 2020 high school graduates pursued some form of college education beyond high school. The drop marked the state’s lowest college-going rate in recent history.
“I think what is so great about this program is it’s giving a lot more students that head start, that jump on starting their college education,” Lowery said. “We can be more intentional … helping students, helping their families, understand that with increases in post secondary attainment, everything essentially improves.”
Lowery said that translates to wage and labor participation increases, decreased unemployment, higher individual net worth, life expectancy improvements and less infant mortality.
Looking ahead, as COVID dollars dwindle
But if Indiana wants to continue offering Crossing the Finish Line as a free opportunity for students, the program would have to be paid for either locally or by the state.
Jenner said education officials are still determining “what we might want to fund as a state in the future.”
She said the emphasis of future funding will be on “rethinking high school,” specifically to ensure that students have access to earn high-value credentials and participate in high-quality, work based learning experiences.
Last month, Indiana lawmakers said one of their top priorities in the 2023 legislative session will be to help more students increase their educational attainment outside of the traditional classroom. That includes ensuring high schools and colleges provide work-based learning opportunities like internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing and service-oriented experiences.
Lowery said that while work-based learning is a good focus area for the General Assembly, there should also be initiatives to better retain college graduates to stay at Indiana once they’ve completed their studies.
“Students can have the opportunity to have a work-based learning experience, and we can be intentional about it with an Indiana employer — then we are going to increase our odds of keeping that student once they’ve completed at the institution,” Lowery said. “I’m really hopeful, because the nature of what we’re talking about is real for Hoosiers. It’s real for businesses, real for the state of our economy. And we’re receiving a lot of positive feedback (from lawmakers).”