Beyond the degree: higher education’s role in a growing Hoosier state

Special Report

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — When walking across the stage at graduation, not every student plans to stay in the state in which they received a degree.

This is something public higher education leaders in Indiana, and the Wabash Valley, want to change. Indiana State University President Dr. Deborah Curtis said 70% of students at the university are from Indiana, and 70% stay in the Hoosier state after graduating, but she still strives for a higher percentage.

“I do get very frustrated when I watch those young people cross that stage each spring and winter, and so many of them pick up and leave,” Curtis said. “We need to retain that talent.”

Talent growth and retention are two of many goals set in the Indiana Chamber Foundation’s recently released Indiana Vision 2025 Report Card. Leaders at local public universities and colleges said they play a role in achieving those goals.

“We really believe we’ve taken on something that’s tough all over the country, but if we don’t get it right, who should?” Dr. Curtis, who sits on the Indiana Chamber 2025+ Taskforce, said.

Tangible goals set in the Report Card under the “Outstanding Talent” category include the following references to higher education programs:

  • Eliminate the educational achievement gaps at all levels, from pre-school to college, for disadvantaged populations
  • Increase to 60% the proportion of Indiana residents with high quality postsecondary credentials
  • Increase the proportion of Indiana residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher to “Top 10” status nationally
  • Increase the proportion of Indiana residents with associate’s degrees or higher to “Top 10” status nationally
  • Increase the proportion of Indiana residents with postsecondary credentials in STEM-related fields to “Top 5” status nationally

The Report Card points to progress among some of these goals, such as 2018 legislation that added computer science offerings to all K-12 schools and a 43% gain in high quality postsecondary credentials since 2011.

Meanwhile, Indiana is ranked 40th in the country when it comes to the percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees or higher, 41st for percentage with associate’s degrees or higher and 42nd for population with science and engineering degrees.

So, how can local higher education institutions help achieve these goals and get Indiana a higher ranking in postsecondary success?

WATCH: what’s the future of online education at ISU?

Dr. Curtis agreed that creating a pathway for disadvantaged populations is a huge key.

“Not everyone is going to move to Terre Haute and go to college, but there’s 100,000 Hoosiers out there with some college and no degree,” Curtis explained. “We need to be the one that steps up and says ‘here’s what it would take’. Our main institutional goal is to serve first generation, low income students who are just plain old hard workers.”

Sometimes, those hard workers aren’t quite ready for a four-year program after high school; that’s where the Pathway to Blue program comes in.

The invite-only program, which is a partnership between ISU and Ivy Tech Community College, gives students a chance to transition from high school to college in a community college atmosphere.

“We’re seeing it as a success with those students who just really are overcoming some of those initial barriers that are just presented to them, and it really just allows us to be very intentional with those students not just on our campus, but on the ISU campus,” Ivy Tech Terre Haute Chancellor Lea Anne Crooks said.

Dr. Curtis echoed Crooks’ thoughts, referencing roughly 30 students who found success in the program during its inaugural year in 2020.

“Ivy Tech, even more than Indiana State, has significant wraparound services,” Dr. Curtis said. “I like to help people understand it by explaining a typical student who comes in and gets started here, if they’re missing class or not meeting expectations early on within a couple of weeks, a faculty member is calling them. At Ivy Tech, the first day they miss a class, they’re contacting them and they’re providing them that support. So, it’s even more intense and immersive, which is perfect because it allows those students to get their grounding in being a college student.”

WATCH: The importance of preparing inmates for the current workforce:

A recent Lilly Endowment grant worth $6.5 million is also helping ISU retain students.

“This infusion of dollars is allowing us to bring on staff and provide with a specific goal to reduce that graduation gap for those at-risk students,” Dr. Curtis said.

So, what about keeping talent in the area to boost the local workforce?

Vincennes University President Dr. Chuck Johnson pointed to partnerships with local businesses and work-based programs as a way to connect students with employment options in the Wabash Valley.

“Everyone from say ThyssenKrupp in Terre Haute to Toyota in Princeton to companies up in central Indiana, they’re recruiting talent into the organizations,” Dr. Johnson said. “Those students are getting practical experience while they’re going through school with, you know, clear career paths for them. They’re going to get great education they can build on after they’ve graduated. In most cases, they’re offered employment with those employers and they can start careers there.”

Dr. Johnson also pointed to the Indiana’s Workforce Ready Grant program as a way for people to pursue education despite barriers they may face.

“The Workforce Ready Grant really just gives another dimension of opportunity, right?” Dr. Johnson said. “It removes a barrier for a lot of our folks, particularly folks who’ve been working and can’t afford to do both school and not work; it gives them a gateway into a career path.”

Students at VU also have the opportunity to take part in the university’s “cobot hub”, thanks to an $8 million Lilly Endowment Grant. The program is another way that technology advancements are being paired with higher education in the Wabash Valley.

WATCH: the future of VU’s collaborative robot, or “cobot”, program:

Crooks pointed to a focus on, and respect for, jobs that don’t require a degree, as another important component of growth in Indiana.

“As a community, we have to value those jobs, right?” Crooks remarked. “When we talk about STEM and you talk about technology and science, you’re talking about health care fields. If we don’t have those, our community doesn’t survive. Then, when you go over to the manufacturing and the cleaning and welding and those types of things, that’s what actually makes our country work, right? I think a lot of times people get those skills, then they become stagnant, and if they want to do something else, then they leave the community. I think we have to continue to grow our own into multiple steps in that process.”

Crooks referenced a leadership certificate Ivy Tech is preparing to deploy that will allow people already in the workforce to gain skills to take on leadership roles without having to dedicate the time and money needed for a comparable degree.

All three academic leaders also referenced a shift to online learning and the ability to adequately educate people in an evolving classroom setting.

Dr. Curtis said ISU is working on an online degree completion program, expected to roll out in the near future.

The fall semester kicks off for all three colleges later in August.

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