Newspaper article Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current)

Graduation Day Puts Heat on Leaders of Higher Ed Funding Is at Stake for Colleges and Universities

Newspaper article Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current)

Graduation Day Puts Heat on Leaders of Higher Ed Funding Is at Stake for Colleges and Universities

Article excerpt

Spencer Blade is determined to make sure he's not one of those college students who slips through the cracks, even though funding his educational goals has been a struggle from the beginning. He earned an associate's degree from Ivy Tech Community College in Terre Haute, and after transferring to the University of Southern Indiana, he has worked for Sprint in Evansville while taking a full load of classes.

But Blade is pushing forward. He's on track to graduate in December with a degree in business administration and a minor in marketing.

Last summer, he gained experience as an intern with a professional speakers bureau in Lawrence, Kan. And although the job market is tight for everyone, Blade knows his employment opportunities will be more plentiful as a college graduate. "You gotta do what you gotta do," he said.

Despite the financial, academic and personal obstacles many students face, higher education institutions across the country face pressure like never before to produce more graduates.

Much is at stake for colleges and universities, especially in Indiana, which is one of the first states to use a performance- based funding formula.

About 5 percent, or $61 million, of the $1.2 billion Indiana's colleges and universities receive annually for the next two years will be tied to graduation rates and other performance metrics. That amount will grow to 6 percent in 2014 and 7 percent in 2015.

At USI, four-year and six-year graduation rates trail state and national averages for public institutions. President Linda Bennett said the desire to keep students enrolled and on paths to graduation "is not something brand new that's been thrust upon us," but the task is harder than outsiders sometimes portray.

"The students we see, they often don't take a straight line (to a degree)," Bennett said. "They might need to leave to take care of mom or dad or a child. We also see a lot of transfer students.

It's much more complex than most people appreciate. But it's a healthy discussion to have." USI staff members such as Mike Minton are on the battle's front lines.

As director of student support services, Minton's office is administering a five-year, $1.2 million U.S. Department of Education grant aimed at retaining college students who have a higher risk of dropping out.

Those include low-income and learning-disabled college students, and students whose parents are not college-educated. USI long has considered it part of its mission to provide access to such students. Minton oversaw a similar program in his previous job at Illinois State University.

At USI, the grant serves 140 new students annually. It emphasizes one-on-one academic advising and tutoring, plus group sessions on time management and completing tedious financial aid forms.

"We're starting a peer mentoring program in the spring, pairing up upperclassmen with underclassmen," Minton said. "Then, we also do what I would call career readiness and professional etiquette programming."

Eighteen participants will take a few days over USI's spring break for a trip to the University of Memphis, where they will learn about the school's graduate studies program and do a service- learning project.

The program has lofty goals - a 45 percent, six-year graduation rate among participating students; a 70 percent persistence rate from one fall semester to the next; and 80 percent of students in good academic standing. Minton said USI's program has reached those objectives so far.

Blade and Amanda Lupfer, a junior from Evansville, are among the 140 participants. Lupfer is pursuing a double major in psychology and studio art. She said she has worked in fast food, retail and a campus promotions position to cover the costs of schooling and "ridiculously expensive art supplies."

Lupfer plans to attend graduate school and eventually work in an art therapy program. …

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