Some Indiana college towns are taking an additional economic hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lifeblood of those towns’ vitality — young students — is flowing more slowly.

The situation is not contained within the pandemic. Enrollment at public universities statewide has been declining for the past five years. COVID-19 intensified the shrinkage.

Likewise, college towns and the state will have to intensify efforts to rebuild enrollments, not just to sustain the schools themselves but also to provide the skilled workers Indiana needs.

Annual statistics released this week by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education illuminated the situation. A total of 239,799 degree-seeking students are enrolled at public universities in Indiana this fall, according to commission numbers reported by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. That represents a drop of 2.6% from last fall and a 10.4% from the fall of 2016, when statewide enrollment totaled 267,598.

Only the main campuses of the Big Ten Conference institutions — Purdue University at West Lafayette and Indiana University at Bloomington — saw fall enrollment gains, along with a few Ivy Tech Community College campuses around the state. Indiana State University’s enrollment dropped 12.8% this fall compared to last fall, while Ivy Tech’s Terre Haute campus saw a slight 0.1% increase, according to commission figures provided to the Tribune-Star on Wednesday.

Two-year colleges experienced the largest drop of 7.1% from fall of 2020. Overall enrollment in the statewide Ivy Tech system dropped 6.7%. Four-year public colleges had a cumulative 1.3% slide in enrollment compared to a year ago.

The drop complicates Indiana’s nearly decade-old goal of getting 60% of its adult population with a college degree or job skills certification by 2025. Only 48% of Hoosiers have those credentials now.

Reasons for the decrease in the number of Indiana college students mirror some primary causes of Terre Haute’s population decline.

The population of traditional college-age people has dwindled, and a smaller percentage of new high school graduates are going straight into college, Sean Tierney, associate commissioner for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. As a city, Terre Haute has seen its family-age and college- age population decline. The trend is unfolding on campuses in college towns elsewhere, too. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center figures show enrollments at U.S. colleges and universities fell 3.2% this fall, NPR reported last week. That amounts to a half-million fewer college students nationwide. Enrollments nationwide fell 3.4% in fall of 2020, as the health and economic impacts of the pandemic set in. Community colleges got hit hardest, with enrollments nationally slipping 5.6% this fall and 10% in 2020.

Schools serving first-generation and low-income college students feel it most. Some may be understandably taking advantage of a pandemic-era increase in wages and choosing to work full time to support a family, rather than balancing college and a job. For others, COVID-19 could have affected their family’s ability to help pay for a college education for a son or daughter. Many may face the same dilemma as other working parents — a lack of affordable childcare.

All of those factors, from birth rates to job issues, affect the college communities. In Terre Haute, Indiana State University employs 1,536 people, trailing only the Vigo County School Corp. and Union Hospital, according to the Terre Haute Economic Development Corp. Another combined 1,053 people are employed at Ivy Tech and the two local private colleges, Rose-Hulman and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Nearly 14,000 students total study at all four schools, adding to the local economy and workforce.

The community will help retain the vitality those institutions provide, and secure its future, by supporting efforts to attract more prospective college students — both those fresh out of high school and adults hoping to finish college degrees — to those campuses. Creating a welcoming atmosphere will help Terre Haute to emerge strong from the pandemic.
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