A compelling effort to encourage young people to continue their education beyond high school unfolded last 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 Nov. 8 were themselves first-generation college graduates, meaning their parents had not received a college degree.

About half of ISU students fit that 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 is 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 choose 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, Walker added. “Please do not let anyone take your dream from you.”

That plea matters greatly in Vigo County. Only one of every four adults 25 and older has a bachelor’s degree or higher. By contrast, 32.1% of adults nationwide have at least a bachelor’s. 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 skilled trade qualification certificate by 2025.

Right now, only 48.3% of Indiana adults have that level of education or training; 2025 is less than four years away. Two million Hoosiers need more training or schooling to reach that goal and fill existing employers’ needs and the million-plus jobs that will open due to retirements and new businesses, 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 should reach out to Hoosier adults as ISU did with those Vigo County teenagers. That pitch should include tangible paths for adults to get a degree or skills certificate 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 pipeline of high school grads into tech training or colleges. The pandemic has also driven adults out of the workforce for various reasons, including a lack of child care. And, much of Indiana’s school- and college-age population is projected to dwindle in the coming decade. All those realities should rekindle the state’s efforts to give Indiana’s 25-and-older population compelling opportunities to earn a degree or certificate.

As one speaker said last week, “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.

Terre Haute Tribune-Star

Trending Video