In a city built on the power of engine building, Ivy Tech Community College President Sue Ellspermann used an analogy during a Columbus visit to describe how the college is evolving through a realignment with a renewed focus on serving local communities.

“We’re a 12-cylinder engine running on eight,” she said of Ivy Tech’s system, referring to the capacity she said she believes the college has to better serve the state by realigning its campuses to more of a community focus.

Ellspermann was interviewed by The Republic’s Editorial Board on Monday and talked about the college’s new mantra, “Putting ‘community’ into community college.'”

The first-year college administrator, who became Ivy Tech system president on July 1, described work behind the scenes to dissolve the educational system’s 14 regions into a new structural organization with chancellor-led, community-focused campuses, including one in Columbus.

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“We’re aligning programs and putting the chancellor and staff members in the seat to serve their communities,” Ellspermann said of the changes.

Ellspermann and her staff are rolling out the new structure to students and staff throughout the state, including town hall meetings that are broadcast to individual campuses.

Last week, Columbus campus president Steven Combs was promoted to chancellor, and is putting together his leadership team in Columbus, one of five middle-sized, second-tier campuses that are also in Kokomo, Muncie, Terre Haute and Sellersburg. There are eight tier-one campuses in larger cities such as Indianapolis, Lafayette, Bloomington and South Bend.

Supply and demand

Ivy Tech has developed a visualization tool to help its campuses align educational offerings with employer needs, dividing its programs into four quadrants:

  • High workforce demand, excess capacity at Ivy Tech
  • High workforce demand, Ivy Tech at capacity
  • Low workforce demand, high Ivy Tech enrollment
  • Workforce demand and student supply at equilibrium.

Initiatives that accompany restructuring include increasing enrollment where the workforce demand is high and the supply is low, increasing employer engagement, focusing on outreach to the feeder system of K-12 education and support for increased degree and certification completion for jobs that are in high demand in the workplace.

As an example, Ellspermann showed a map of Indiana that shows Columbus meeting needs in producing registered nurses for the area, but Indianapolis having a huge need for them. As a result, some of the nurses being trained in Columbus will find career opportunities in Indianapolis, she said.

For students who might be considering a criminal justice degree, as another example, Ellspermann said Ivy Tech advisers need to help students realize that related career paths may offer greater opportunities. Such fields include cybersecurity and information technology security, where employers can’t find enough qualified applicants, she said.

Ivy Tech also needs to locate potential students in new places, and present new hope for their futures, she said.

“We have to go into populations we haven’t considered before — ex-offenders, places where we have not seen the opportunity to provide employees with middle skill sets. We have a tremendous opportunity for the state. We can take a single mom who is on a lot of public assistance, and leap frog her into an LPN or RN job at $45,000 a year,” Ellspermann said.

Ivy Tech’s students represent different demographics than students at four-year institutions, Ellspermann said.

Sixty-nine percent of the Ivy Tech student body attends part time and nearly all of those students are Pell Grant-eligible, meaning they qualify for significant financial aid, she said. In anecdotal evidence, Ellspermann said about half of the Ivy Tech student body has children. Average age of an Ivy Tech student is 27, and average age at graduation is 31.

One of the biggest challenges the college system is taking on is making sure students stay long enough to attain their certification or degree, or at least have enough transferable credits to move to a four-year college and be successful, she said.

“Their hours may change at work, and they may drop out,” she said. “Their car breaks down. The babysitter quits. They have more needs, more challenges, than many students.”

In addition to finding the students, Ellspermann said the college system is using high-tech solutions to help students find success at Ivy Tech, mining its own data warehouse which has provided a treasure trove of predictive analytics about which students are doing well, and which ones are struggling, in as little as two weeks into a term.

While it’s daunting to contact thousands of students, Ellspermann said a campus can reach out to 2,000 at the beginning of the school year when the data indicates they might be in danger of dropping out.

Ivy Tech is developing an app for its students that will help each campus track how the student is interacting with campus services, which helps provide the data analytics to predict who might be struggling and need help.

Attaining goals

Columbus, through the Community Education Coalition, has embraced the Lumina Foundation benchmark — that 60 percent of adults between the ages of 24 and 65 hold a post-secondary credential by the year 2025.

Ellspermann said as a state, Indiana is at 41.1 percent of that goal as of 2015, compared to a national attainment of 45.8 percent.

Bartholomew County is slightly above statewide levels, with 42.1 percent of its adults holding post-secondary credentials.

Getting to 60 percent statewide, 1 million more degrees and credentials will have to be earned by 2025, Ellspermann said.

Even with half of those being picked up and earned through Ivy Tech or its sister community college, Vincennes University, it’s still a staggering number for the state to attempt, Ellspermann said.

“But I’d rather get to 58 percent by working hard rather than get to 41 percent by doing nothing,” she said. “We could get there if we all row together.”

To reach the 60 percent goal, the state will have to include shorter-term credentials that aren’t included yet in the total, such as CDL truck driving credentials, she said. And while it’s challenging, Ellspermann said reaching the 60 percent attainment metric could still be realistic for 2025.

Asked what specific partnership programs Combs might be bringing to Columbus’ campus as it realigns to employer-need programming and offerings, Ellspermann said the new chancellor has some great ideas that could be announced soon.

When also asked to rate how well the college system aligns with employer needs now, Ellspermann pointed to the college’s dual-credit system, which allows students to begin their college career while still in high school, and eventually, if they wish, transfer those credits to a four-year institution.

Ellspermann said she has a concern that Ivy Tech’s goal of a seamless course-transfer process with four-year programs has not been achieved, which leads some students to drop out of Ivy Tech before completing a certification or degree because the remainder of the courses won’t transfer to their next educational institution.

When Ellspermann sees that 10,000 of the 25,000 students who are transferring out of Ivy Tech with their associate’s degree, she asks why the other 15,000 didn’t complete their Ivy Tech course work before transferring, she said.

“It should be easy and seamless, and we’re not there yet,” she said.

Ivy Tech will continue its restructuring and transition without layoffs or leaving any community, Ellspermann said. And the college won’t be asking for more money to address the restructuring, although Ellspermann said she reserves the option to ask for additional funding if an existing program needs to be expanded.

The college has about 6.5 million square feet of building space across the state and Ellspermann said it probably could shed a million or more of that square footage without affecting programming but resulting in significant cost savings. Even with planned capital expenses for Kokomo and Muncie campus, there are savings to be found in square footage, she said.

The college system will also be looking for continued support from the Ivy Tech Foundation, which is supported by the communities where campuses are located.

“As we prove that we’re the best investment, the dollars will follow,” Ellspermann said. “I’m an industrial engineer. Before I ask for any more dollars, I need to make sure every dollar we spend is being deployed effectively.”

Quotable outtakes

Here’s what Ivy Tech Community College President Sue Ellspermann said on three key topics.

COMMUNITY FOCUS: “We’re a 12-cylinder engine running on eight.”

FUNDING HIGHER EDUCATION: “As we prove that we’re the best investment, the dollars will follow.”

CHANGING LIVES: “We can take a single mom who is on a lot of public assistance, and leap frog her into an LPN or RN job at $45,000 a year.”

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at or (812) 379-5631.