sealMarch, 1999 Column by the President

The Community College System

Steven C. Beering
President, Purdue University

Educators, economists, sociologists and business leaders all agree that the smartest thing a high school graduate can do is to go to college. Almost without exception, as education increases, so do earnings, quality of life, stability and even health. These individual benefits translate into broader societal benefits in the form of greater civic involvement, more taxes paid, lower crime rates and the perpetuation of education itself, since most parents make education a priority for their children.

With all these advantages, it is easy to see why the plan to develop a community college system in Indiana has attracted widespread interest. The proposal -- advanced by Gov. Frank O'Bannon and Mr. Stan Jones, Commissioner of Higher Education -- envisions a statewide system that would offer easy access and low cost for people who want to upgrade their job skills or just satisfy their desire to learn.

Since the announcement that Lafayette has been chosen as one of five pilot sites for the program, a number of people have asked about the impact the proposed community college would have on Purdue's enrollment. The answer to that question is that the students who enroll at the West Lafayette campus come from every U. S. state and nearly 140 countries. With very few exceptions they are committed to full-time study at a major research institution. Their profile and their priorities are different from the people who choose a community college.

Purdue has supported community-based education for many years. We have established regional campuses and developed statewide technology programs, as well as numerous academic offerings via television.

We support the community college concept, because it will provide yet another set of opportunities to extend post-secondary education to more Hoosiers. We already have very fruitful relationships with Ivy Tech and Vincennes University. Purdue currently accepts credits from 34 Ivy Tech courses. In the current semester, more than 500 students who have completed at least one Ivy Tech course are enrolled on the West Lafayette campus. Likewise, we have more than 300 students who have taken one or more courses at Vincennes. I have therefore invited Chancellor Betty Doversberger to meet with us to discuss how we can expand this foundation into a strategic partnership which would not compete with but complement our current efforts.

However, I do have some concerns about the way the new state system might be implemented. Our current system of higher education utilizes the multiple campuses of Purdue and Indiana University, along with the smaller state-funded institutions and some 38 independent colleges. With the exception of Vincennes and Ivy Tech, these are all institutions that grant bachelor's degrees and graduate degrees. Even though the two-year associate degree is available in many programs, this approach has tended to encourage students to work toward the baccalaureate degree, and I think this is a good thing for the people of Indiana.

If the new system introduces more people into post-secondary education and encourages them to continue on for a bachelor's or graduate degree, we will all be winners. However, if it diverts students from advanced programs, in effect substituting associate degrees for bachelor's degrees, individuals will suffer and so will the state. The experience in other states indicates that students who enroll in a two-year program are much less likely to complete a bachelor's degree than those who start out at a four-year institution.

There is universal agreement in the business community that the growth industries of today and for the foreseeable future are those that employ well-educated, highly skilled people. Currently, Indiana ranks 50th among the states in the generation of these kinds of jobs. The long-term impacts of this situation could be disastrous for our economy. The state needs to attract more high-tech industries, and the first step to doing that is making sure that our citizenry will provide the right kind of labor pool. The new system must be implemented with that goal in mind.

In a letter to the Higher Education Commission in September, Purdue urged that a study be done to determine the unmet educational needs in our state. It is unfortunate that the community college system is being put into place before the results of such a study are available.

Another very important issue is the quality of programs. Universities must maintain high academic standards. When a student from another institution applies to Purdue, our faculty look closely not only at the student's record, but also at the content and the rigor of the courses in which he or she was enrolled. If they do not meet Purdue standards, the credits can not be accepted. This protects both the integrity of our programs and the interests of the student, who will not succeed if poorly prepared.

We hope the Ivy Tech-Vincennes partnership will have available the requisite resources in terms of faculty, facilities, and finances to make the new program a success for the benefit of everyone in Indiana.

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