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Last modified: Tuesday, December 7, 2004

My view: The case against reducing enrollment at IU, Purdue

Reprinted from The Indianapolis Star
November 28, 2004
By: Adam W. Herbert; Martin C. Jischke

The Indiana Government Efficiency Commission has correctly concluded that as our state endeavors to become more competitive in the global economy, its publicly funded institutions of higher learning must play a key role.

Indiana University and Purdue University wholeheartedly support the commission's ultimate goal of expanding higher education opportunities for Hoosiers at regional university and community college campuses.

We are pleased that the commission found IU and Purdue to be efficiently managed, and we concur with the recommendation that our institutions expand research activities and provide more graduate-level education opportunities. We are already working hard to do this, and the efforts are paying off in attracting new business ventures to Indiana.

With coordinated effort and well-placed new investment, the commission's goals are achievable. However, we believe the road map laid out by the commission's higher education subcommittee could unintentionally lead us in the wrong destination.

The K-12 task force found that just one in five of Indiana high school students goes on to obtain a four-year college degree within six years of graduation. That is far too few, and it has the potential to be a major drag on efforts to reinvigorate the state's economy.

The commission concluded that while Indiana's public colleges and universities operate efficiently as individual entities, the overall higher education system is not efficient. The commission says too many Hoosiers are enrolled at the state's "most expensive" institutions -- IU's Bloomington campus and Purdue's West Lafayette campus -- while too few are in "lower-cost programs."

It recommends reducing undergraduate enrollment at Bloomington and West Lafayette and reducing state support for these campuses. This money would then be redirected to expand community college campuses.

The flaw here is that moving money around will not expand opportunity or offer more educational options. In the long run, Indiana needs to produce more college graduates, not reshuffle the existing mix of undergraduate students into less expensive classrooms.

There is a better solution. Indiana is educating the right number of undergraduate students at IU Bloomington and Purdue West Lafayette, and has the potential to produce more. That is why we have committed IU and Purdue regional campuses to increase four-year degree production. It is why we support expanding community college programs through Ivy Tech and making it easier for community college students to transfer associate-degree credits so they can pursue bachelor's degrees in the IU and Purdue systems.

The fact that so many of Indiana's high school graduates have the opportunity to attend two world-class research universities at in-state tuition rates should not be viewed as a problem. Rather, it is an extraordinary advantage that must be preserved.

Efforts to limit undergraduate enrollments at Bloomington and West Lafayette could actually contribute to Indiana's brain drain. If they are denied admission at these campuses, our state's most college-ready students will seek admission at similar institutions elsewhere in the country. And we cannot expect them to return to Indiana after they receive degrees elsewhere.

Indeed, our challenge here lies in creating more jobs that will allow these smart, highly educated and job-ready graduates to live and work in Indiana.

Expanding access to community college offerings is definitely a step in the right direction, but Hoosiers must not be misled into thinking it can be done without additional public costs. There are no shortcuts to creating a higher education system that serves all Hoosiers well.

Likewise, there are no shortcuts to the commission's other major recommendation -- that IU and Purdue expand opportunities for graduate-level education and scientific research. The commission is correct in its observation that these programs serve as catalysts for business investment and growth. But it's wrong to think that federal grants can be used to fill the state funding cuts they propose. In fact, Bloomington and West Lafayette already receive significantly less funding than their peers and competitors in the research arena.

We are working vigorously to increase research activities at the Bloomington, West Lafayette and the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campuses. This year, externally sponsored research at Purdue and IU totaled more than $750 million. This is an all-time record, and the role of undergraduates should not be underestimated. The best of these students not only participate in the research, but they also are important in the recruitment and support of faculty.

Four of every five students at West Lafayette and Bloomington are undergrads. They bring in the funding needed to support a faculty with the depth of experience and breadth of accomplishment necessary to compete for highly competitive research dollars.

If these campuses reduced enrollment, they would have to reduce faculty. That, in turn, would likely result in a reduction of research capacity and reduce the opportunity for undergraduates to be exposed to some of the nation's top researchers. These outcomes would not be good for the future of students or the state.

Despite our concerns, we believe the Indiana Government Efficiency Commission has done a remarkably good job of zeroing in on some of Indiana's most pressing educational challenges. In coming days, this report will spark a much-needed discussion of these issues. We look forward to being a part of this debate.

Herbert is president of Indiana University and Jischke is president of Purdue University.

Copyright (c) The Indianapolis Star. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.