ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Feeding the pipeline toward higher education

A compelling effort to encourage young people to continue their education beyond high school unfolded this week at Indiana State University.

The cornerstone of ISU’s reputation as a institution specializing in first-generation college students provided an entry way with teenagers on the brink of a crucial life decision. Their choice — whether to pursue a college degree or enter the workforce. The speakers in ISU’s inaugural First Generation College Student Celebration on Monday in Tirey Hall were themselves first-generation college graduates, meaning their parents had not received a college degree.

About half of ISU students fit that first-generation demographic. University staffers told the 80 high school youths that ISU possesses the services and resources to specifically help such students succeed. They also told their personal stories. The daughter of a single mom with three kids and limited income became an ISU dean. A Chicago native who lacked the money to attend college after high school, worked in retail for five years, then got his degree and now serves as ISU’s executive director of residential life.

Those speakers delivered a powerful message to the teens, who would also be their families’ first college graduates, if they chose to continue their schooling.

“I know that you’ve struggled. There have been times you wanted to give up, because we have college students (at ISU) who feel the same way,” said Kale Walker, a training specialist and human-resources generalist at the university. But those high schoolers should not let those struggles stop their aspirations of becoming a doctor, lawyer or public servant in their hometowns, Walker added. “Please do not let anyone take your dream from you.”

That plea matters greatly in Vigo County. Only one of every four (25.1% to be exact) adults ages 25 and older in the county hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. By contrast, 32.1% of adults nationwide hold at least a bachelor’s degree. On top of that, state leaders have maintained a goal for most of the past decade to get 60% of Hoosiers to attain a two- or four-year college degree or qualification certificate in skilled trades by 2025.

Right now, only 48.3% of Indiana adults have that level of education or training. The year 2025 is less than four years away.

Two million Hoosiers need additional training or schooling to reach that goal and fill existing employers’ needs and the one-million-plus jobs that will open through retirements and new business in the state, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s “Reaching Higher in a State of Change” strategic plan.

State leaders, colleges and technical training institutes statewide should reach out to Hoosier adults in the same way ISU did with those Vigo County teenagers. That pitch should include tangible paths for adults lacking a degree or skills certificate to get one, with details about low-cost or free tuition offerings such as Ivy Tech Community College’s “Achieve Your Degree” program.

COVID-19 has disrupted the traditional pipeline of high school graduates flowing directly into tech training or college classrooms. The pandemic has also driven adults out of the workforce for a variety of reasons, including a lack of child care. And, the school- and college-age population through much of Indiana is projected to dwindle through the coming decade. All of those realities should rekindle the state’s efforts to give Indiana’s 25-and-older population compelling opportunities to earn a degree or certificate. Those folks are out there.

As one speaker said Monday, “Getting a college degree does make a difference. It helps you be more confident in your ability to guide your own lives and to be happy in your life.”

Young Hoosiers deserve to hear that message and the opportunity to act on it. So do their elders.