The Limitations of Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: Degree Attainment in Indiana

Writing for the Indianapolis Business Journal, J. K. Wall has reported:

“Indiana’s public colleges and universities, spurred by pressure from state lawmakers, are pumping out more graduates than ever.

“But in spite of a 20-percent increase in degrees granted since 2010, the education level of Indiana’s younger adults has barely budged, for reasons that aren’t clear.

“Compared with the rest of the nation, the state actually lost ground in the past decade on the chunk of its residents age 18 to 34 holding at least an associate’s degree.”

Specifically, over a five-year period, the number of baccalaureate degrees awarded by Indiana’s public universities increased by about 7,700, from 38,400 in 2010 to more than 46,100 last year. Indeed, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, which has led the effort to increase the number of graduates, “rates of students completing their degree doubled from 2011 to 2013, and the number of students completing their degrees on time rose 40 percent.” Nonetheless, as Wall has reported:

“Only 35 percent of Hoosiers age 25 to 64 held an associate’s degree or higher in 2013, according to the most recent census data. Nationally, the rate is 40 percent.

“Indiana’s overall education attainment rate has risen 3.5 percentage points since 2005, the year the Census Bureau started collecting such data annually.

“Indiana’s gains in education levels have come almost entirely from Hoosiers age 35 to 64, many of whom went back to school after losing jobs during the Great Recession that began in late 2007.

“But among adults age 18 to 34—those who are in or have recently come out of Indiana’s college system—attainment has inched up only half a percentage point since 2005. Meanwhile, the nation grew 1.5 points.”

State and university officials have attempted to explain the paradoxical statistics by pointing to the 11% growth in college-aged population in Indiana over the five-year period being studied. Over a longer time frame, when the college-aged population levels out, the increase in degree attainment may become much more apparent.

But it is also true that the number of out-of-state students attending universities in Indiana considerably exceeds the number of Indiana students who attend out-of-state universities. So the increase in degree attainment is, in effect, providing economic benefits to neighboring states—instead of providing Indiana with a competitive advantage economically.

Neither individual states nor individual issues exist in isolation. And solutions that are premised on the simplistic assumption that they do exist in isolation are not only very unlikely to solve the problems that they ostensibly address, but they may, at least in some respects, actually make the problems worse.


K. Wall’s complete article for the Indianapolis Business Journal is available at:


2 thoughts on “The Limitations of Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: Degree Attainment in Indiana

  1. My impression is that Indiana’s public education system is underfunded and not very good – a plausible reason why efforts to increase higher education attainment have no effect on the “products” of its K-12 system. But in order to address this, Indiana politicians and voters would first have to buy themselves a clue.

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