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Beyond bachelor’s degrees: Why Indy’s private colleges are adding two-year degrees

Some Indianapolis private colleges are adding more associate degree and certificate programs, creating more options for students. (Provided Photo/Nash Ward via Mirror Indy)

A correction was made on March 28, 2024: A previous version of this story misstated how many students are enrolled at Ivy Tech. The school has over 196,000 students enrolled across the state.

INDIANAPOLIS (MIRROR INDY) — Ruben Joachim had his heart set on attending Indiana University Bloomington.

But the 19-year-old said his hopes were dashed because of a problem with his in-state residency status. That’s when his school counselor told him about Marian University’s two-year program, called Saint Joseph’s College. Joachim was nervous about changing up the plan, but St. Joe’s was affordable, and he’d be able to get paid work experience while in school.

“Already, I’m getting that experience, building that credibility,” he said. 

As private schools like Marian continue to seek ways to broaden their educational offerings, the lines blur more and more between academic programs from private universities and local community colleges.

That’s good news for students who want more options for higher education. It’s also a savvy financial move by small private institutions looking to boost student enrollment. Experts predict a future dip in enrollment due to declining birth rates. 

Thirty colleges, mostly private regional schools, closed their doors in the first 10 months of 2023, according to the Hechinger Report. By growing beyond bachelor’s degrees to associate degrees, certificates and certification programs, private colleges seek to proactively fend off enrollment problems.

“Private universities do not have the backing of a state legislature,” said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, “and even missing their enrollment targets by a few students can have real effects.”

Behind the growth

For more than a decade, students pursuing an associate degree or certificate program looked to Ivy Tech Community College or Vincennes University as the hub for non-bachelor’s degree programs. 

Since lawmakers established Ivy Tech as the state’s community college system in 2005, it’s seen tremendous growth. Today, the college has more than 196,000 students and 19 campuses across Indiana, with over 70 academic programs offering certificates, certifications and associate degrees.

Enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that in fall 2023, community colleges saw an enrollment increase of 118,000 students. Associate degree and certificate programs saw greater growth in student enrollment than bachelor’s degree programs. 

Indianapolis colleges have responded by reevaluating and expanding their offerings. Colleges hope that some students in these shorter programs may continue on to earn a bachelor’s degree. Marian, and eventually Butler, encourage this path for their associate degree students by offering lower tuition rates than what they’d pay if they started in a bachelor’s program.

In the last three years, Butler’s ramped up its certificate and career training programs in concentrations ranging from insurance to medical device sales. The university also plans to open Founder’s College, a two-year college for high-achieving students from historically underserved populations, in fall 2025.

The University of Indianapolis announced in 2021 that it would offer an engineering management certificate online through its online career hub, the Sease Institute. The school also offers a handful of associate degrees

Beyond that, University of Indianapolis is investing heavily into stackable degree programs, meaning that instead of classes and credits, the degree consists of a variety of certificates that will eventually amalgamate into a degree. The college is starting by redesigning its Master of Business Administration as a collection of certificates, which it will start offering this fall.

In addition to Saint Joseph’s College, Marian offers two-year degrees at Ancilla College in Plymouth, which it absorbed in 2021. Marian added more online career development certificates this fall, supplementing an expansive online class hub for a variety of careers. 

Spending less time in school not only means less debt, but also a shorter time before the student can start building a career.

“It’s this mentality of this generation coming in and saying, ‘I need to make money. I need to make a lot of money. I need to do it fast,’” said Bessie Rigakos, vice president and dean of Saint Joseph’s College. “So we’re starting to see that shift.”

An impending enrollment cliff

Universities also are seeing a shift in the demographics of their students.

The perception that all college students are between the ages of 18 and 22 is outdated. Lumina Foundation data shows that 37% of college students are 25 or older and 40% work full-time. 

It’s advantageous for private colleges to work toward recruiting older students, as higher education experts warn of a looming “enrollment cliff” caused by declining birth rates. After 2025, fewer 18-year-olds will be graduating and enrolling in college.

That leaves private colleges — which see the increasing demand for non-bachelor’s degree programs and the growing population of adult students — grappling with how to create new programs that offer something unique while holding onto what students like.

Liz Jackson, associate director of industry partnerships at Butler, said that when she and her team are looking for certificate programs to add, they focus on requests from companies to fill gaps for employees they’re looking to hire.

That’s particularly important when creating a program that already exists elsewhere.

Butler launched a 15-month early childhood educator certificate program last fall that combines online classes with work in preschools and early learning centers. While Butler’s program is free for all current participants, thanks to funding from Early Learning Indiana, the sticker price is just under $10,000 — nearly double the cost of a long-term certificate in early childhood education from Ivy Tech.

“Ivy Tech is already filling that need,” Jackson said. “That’s not our goal, is to underprice Ivy Tech, but we do want to make it more affordable, because we get back to that accessibility question.”

‘Start here, go anywhere’

Everyone knows everyone at Saint Joseph’s College, which is housed in a former church less than a mile away from Marian University’s main campus on the west side.

The school is small, with less than 100 students across both academic years. Professors at Marian are focused on impact rather than breadth, and students benefit from one-to-one interaction with professors and career specialists.

The close-knit community has been a big plus for 19-year-old Madelyn Brubaker, a first-year student.

Brubaker was drawn to Marian early on in her college application process. Her mom is a faculty member there, so she gets free tuition. While she considered going to Marian’s other two-year school to study agriculture, the “earn-and-learn” model of St. Joe’s ultimately cinched her choice.

“This is perfect, especially for me,” she said. “I love being go-go-go.”

Administrators at Marian modeled St. Joe’s Indy on the Swiss apprenticeship model, where students work and attend class at the same time. Students are connected with paid work opportunities, which they receive class credit for.

All students are required to take a professional development skills class before being cleared to work. It’s an intense program, and Rigakos said it’s not for everyone.

“Our professors don’t make it easier for them,” she said. “We need our students to be ready to pathway into a four-year program.”

That’s been a surprising positive for Joachim, who’s well into his first year. He’s working in accounting at a local consulting firm, and that work experience has him convinced that choosing the two-year program was the right choice. 

Though Rigakos said the informal motto at St. Joe’s is “start here, go anywhere,” all programs at the two-year college can transfer into programs at Marian’s main campus. There’s even incentive to do so: Students who’ve graduated from St. Joe’s and transfer to Marian keep the same tuition rate from their two-year program, which is less than half of the sticker-price tuition for the four-year school. 

Brubaker said she is hoping to transfer to Marian or IU to complete her four-year degree after she gets her associate next year, and she is close to securing a job. She credits the St. Joe’s community with helping her reach potential.

“There’s so many options,” said Brubaker. “There are so many pathways out. Instead of being stuck, you just have to open your eyes and let people help you, and help other people.”

Claire Rafford covers higher education for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus. Got a higher ed story? Get in touch: or on social media @clairerafford.