Morton Marcus: Education and the Hoosier holy land

Some people say Hoosier education is a failure.

That’s probably false.

Others report Hoosiers are poorly educated. That’s true, if we measure education by degrees earned or years of schooling completed.

In 2019, before the COVID crisis, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 33.1% of Americans 25 years and older in the United States had a bachelor’s degree and/or a professional or graduate degree. Indiana ranked 42nd among the 50 states at 26.9%.

We were between New Mexico (27.7%) and Alabama (26.3%). Massachusetts (45%) led the nation; West Virginia (21.1%) trailed all states.

With college degrees now frequently expected, younger adults are more likely to hold the necessary degrees than their older relatives. Nationally, 37% of persons 25 to 34 years old have such degrees. Only 31% of Hoosiers in that age range do. At the other end of the age scale, 29% of Americans 65 years and older hold bachelor and higher degrees, compared with 22% of senior Hoosiers.

Why are Indiana residents well below the educational attainment of average Americans?

One possible reason for the poor showing of Indiana’s residents is that our universities and colleges offer quality education and attractive settings for out-of-state and foreign students. This enables our academic recruiters to enroll non-resident students in our schools, students who will pay more in tuition than do in-state students.

Upon graduation, students often discover Indiana employers don’t offer stimulating jobs matching contemporary education and provide non-competitive compensation. Under such circumstances, job seekers may choose elsewhere beyond our borders, away from the perceived nowhere of Hoosier communities.

Thus, the answer may be primarily economic rather than cultural.

Compensation paid by Indiana employers appears to be too low to retain and attract better-educated workers. The value of the products and services offered by Indiana businesses does not justify higher compensation. The value is low because we make commodities and produce unexceptional services.

Corn, beans and steel are bought and sold without much differentiation, novelty or distinctiveness. Patents are transitory even for pharmaceutical products, and the competition is fierce. Auto parts can be sourced from anywhere. There are few brand names that bring Indiana to mind.

Often our larger firms are owned by distant corporations with their ingenuity based outside Indiana. Others are too small to invest in something different or have difficulty finding capital sufficient to break into larger markets.

Now, our state government, via its latest regional program (READI), blames the dullness of our communities for our deficient economic and population growth.

The state administration and the legislature are betting half a billion dollars they can make Indiana more attractive to well-educated people. But what does Indiana do to stir the blood of business owners beyond tepid taxes and relaxed regulations?

Morton Marcus is an economist. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow his views and those of John Guy on Who gets what? wherever podcasts are available or at Send comments to [email protected].