Last week’s announcement  that the Indiana University system had agreed to shift virtually all of its remaining associate degrees to Ivy Tech Community College would barely raise an eyebrow in most states, where community colleges have long been the primary providers of two-year degrees. But in Indiana, the agreement caps years of sometimes halting efforts by state officials to build a community college system where none had existed a decade earlier and to better coordinate the delivery of higher education to the state’s residents.
“Is Indiana getting its act together in terms of its coordination of higher education?” says Robert Sandy, assistant executive vice president at Indiana University, repeating a reporter’s question. “I don't know that we're up to speed, but this is certainly a sign of progress.”
It was seven years ago this month that officials in Indiana, continuing their nascent efforts to build a community college system the state had long lacked, declared that associate degrees should primarily be awarded through two-year institutions. Logical as the move might have seemed in most states, it represented a major shift in Indiana, where many two-year degrees were still offered by regional campuses of Indiana and Purdue Universities that had once been community colleges, to which the state had turned given the absence of a comprehensive two-year-college system.
And by and large, the transition did not occur. Despite the (vague) language in the proclamation, part of a broader “Campus Compact” in which the Indiana Commission on Higher Education sought to improve coordination among state colleges, relatively little changed. The declaration said that four-year institutions could continue to offer a small number of degrees that were consistent with their missions, and Indiana’s regional four-year campuses clung ferociously to associate degrees that brought them students and the associated tuition revenue that came with them.
“The decision of what was ‘consistent with their missions’ was largely left to each university, and it turned out that whatever had the most credit hours was vital to their mission,” says Sandy. “It was an entirely natural reaction.”
But that reaction also meant that the state struggled to accomplish its goals in terms of degree completion, at time when, like most states, it faces an intense need to move more and more residents through higher education and into the work force. "Indiana has for years talked about its inverted pyramid," in which "the bulk of students are in the highest cost institutions, while at the same time, it has got an educational attainment rate that’s on the low end of the 50 states," says Dennis P. Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which has worked with Indiana on adult education and other efforts.
"They recognize that they've got to get more students through the pipeline, and that having a fully functioning community college system is crucial both for achieving the goal and for paying for it," Jones adds.
So Indiana's higher education commission ramped up its pressure on four-year campuses in recent years, requiring an institution to eliminate one associate degree program every time it sought to add a bachelor's degree. More recently, the commission grew even more aggressive, Sandy says, requiring, in two instances, multiple institutions in the system to eliminate associate degree programs (in dental hygiene and radiography) because one campus sought to add a bachelor's degree. "The campuses within IU didn't like that process, using phrases like 'this is extortion,' " says Sandy. "It complicated life from a campus administration's point of view."
At that point, he says, Indiana University officials realized they needed to review all of their associate degree programs to "decide what makes educational and financial sense to retain."
Ivy Tech Evolves
In the meantime, Ivy Tech Community College was slowly maturing into the comprehensive community college system that the state had historically lacked. Ivy Tech (at one time known as Indiana Vocational Technical College) had long focused on vocational and technical education, and it joined with Vincennes University in 1999 in an effort to build a system of two-year colleges that would focus on general education and transfer as well as technical training. That partnership largely fell apart in 2004, though, and Ivy Tech became the sole sponsor of the community college effort.
Ivy Tech has spent the last several years striving to build its relationships (in terms of transfer agreements and partnerships) with individual four-year colleges in the states and, more generally, to bolster the confidence of university faculty members and administrators in its ability to provide a sound general education to would-be bachelor's degree students. The institution has had a sales job to do, given that just 9 percent of students who entered in 2003 had earned a degree within three years and just 21 percent had either graduated or transferred to a four-year college, according to Ivy Tech statistics. 
Ivy Tech's progress -- and the strong backgrounds of the two-year system's new leaders -- have helped to shore up that confidence, although Sandy admits that skeptics remain on some IU campuses. But the university's own new leaders, including President Michael A. McRobbie, know that their institutions and the state are unlikely to achieve their own ambitions unless Ivy Tech fulfills its goals, and that the colleges have to collaborate -- through agreements such as the passing of the baton on most associate degrees -- to make it happen.
"We see this as an acknowledgment of our successful development as a comprehensive community college, providing transfer and general education," says Donald S. Doucette, senior vice president and provost at Ivy Tech. "Indiana University has now worked with Ivy Tech, developing relationships that make them confident they can count on us to provide high quality associate degree education."
But the agreement -- which allows Indiana U. to sustain associate degree programs in fields where campuses have deep strengths or have made major investments, such as music at the Bloomington campus and paramedic science at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis -- builds in mechanisms aimed at ensuring that the quality is there from program to program.
First, an IU campus will agree to eliminate a given associate degree program only once its officials are confident that the Ivy Tech counterpart is a sufficient replacement, Sandy says (if there is disagreement between senior IU and Ivy Tech administrators on whether Ivy Tech is ready to assume the new program, the state commission adjudicates the matter). Doucette notes, though, that in most cases, Indiana (and Purdue) campuses already have articulation agreements to accept graduates of Ivy Tech's associate degree programs, "which would argue that they already approve of what we do. Mainly what we're doing [with the agreement] is eliminating unnecessary duplication."
Indiana and Ivy Tech officials also plan to track the performance of Ivy Tech students who go on for further work in similar fields at Indiana, to see, for example, how Ivy Tech math students go on to perform in math classes in programs such as engineering at IU. "Conceptually, we're on the same page that if we're going to take their students, and the work they do [at Ivy Tech] computes into our bachelor's degrees, then they have to be able to perform," says Sandy. Both institutions will also be eyeing progress in the Ivy Tech transfer and graduation rates, he adds. "Everyone recognizes -- them more than everyone else -- that this system won't work if they're at the kind of [graduation rate] number they've been at in the past."
Doucette acknowledges that Ivy Tech -- like any institution -- must continue to improve, but he expresses full confidence in the quality of Ivy Tech's programs. As is true at many community colleges, he says, Ivy Tech's federal completion rates radically understate the ultimate success of its students, because so many attend part time. "The average time to degree for our students is almost five years, so measuring them on a three-year basis doesn't make a lot of sense," Doucette says. "Our completion rate, if you go out as far as seven or eight years, including people who are still enrolled in one institution or another, is approximately 50 to 60 percent, on a par with most public universities."
He adds: "I'm used to others underestimating the quality of what we're doing in community colleges, but we've felt ready for this for a while. This is a validation that yes, in fact, we are ready."
The agreement between Indiana and Ivy Tech on associate degrees is just part of a larger arrangement in which the state's largest university system and its emergent community college system are essentially binding themselves together; the two have agreed to "co-brand" general education programs to the state's 650,000 adults who have no college degree, with Ivy Tech offering an associate of arts and Indiana University a bachelor of science in general studies.
The agreement on associate degrees and the broader partnership will allow Ivy Tech to grow to meet the demands of state residents who are seeking access to higher education; its projections show its enrollment of credit students growing to 130,000 in 2010 from 111,205 in 2006-7. Total enrollment is expected to reach 175,000 by 2010.
And in exchange for giving up most of their two-year degrees, Indiana's regional campuses are expected to gain more support from state higher education officials to offer graduate programs in fields such as teaching, nursing and social work where they can document a need for more workers, says Sandy.
Plus if Ivy Tech's ambitious plans for expansion succeed in producing more graduates with associate degrees, many more students will seek to transfer into IU's regional campuses, to "more than make up for any credit hours they lost," he says.
"I'm personally convinced," Sandy adds, "that every single campus will gain."