Northeast Indiana gains in college attainment over last 40 years

August 12th, 2012

News Coverage:
Indiana Economic Digest

Northeast Indiana gains in college attainment over last 40 years

ANGOLA — The four-county region has experienced a brain gain in the last 40 years, joining the rest of the country in what has been a massive increase in the number of adults who have earned college degrees, according to data compiled by the Center for Rural Strategies.

While the percentage of college graduates has risen in DeKalb, LaGrange, Noble and Steuben counties, it remained below the national average of 27.9 percent of adults who had completed college. The Indiana average is 22.4 percent.

In the four-county area, Steuben County, at 18.9 percent, has the highest percentage of people older than 25 who have college degrees. That is up from 8.8 percent in 1970.

The percentage of adults in the United States with college degrees has nearly tripled since 1970, when 10.7 percent of adults had graduated from college, according to the data released Thursday. But the percentage of adults with degrees in small counties such as those in northeast Indiana, while increasing, has generally fallen behind the proportion of college-educated residents in urban counties.

In DeKalb County, 15.7 percent of the population older than 25 had a bachelor’s degree in 2010 compared to 5 percent in 1970. In Noble County, 13 percent of people older than 25 had completed college in 2010 compared to 5.3 percent in 1970. For LaGrange County, 10.4 percent of residents over 25 completed college in 2010 compared to 4.7 percent in 1970.

The loss of young, well-educated residents has posed a long-standing difficulty for rural communities, said a report released with the data.

“One of the problems that rural areas face is that in order to get a college education, young people often have to leave,” says Judith Stallmann, an economist at the University of Missouri. “Once you leave, that introduces you to other opportunities that you might not have seen had you not left.”

Rural America has caught up in every other measure of education, the report said.

In 1970, 7.8 percent of adults in rural counties had some education after high school, but less than a college degree. By 2010, 27.4 percent of rural adults had attained some post high school education without earning a college diploma. That level of education was close to the national average of 28.1 percent.

In DeKalb County, 8.2 percent of adults had some college in 1970, which rose to 28.7 percent in 2010, which was higher than the national average. The Indiana average in 2010 was 27.6 percent.

In Steuben County, 11.9 percent of adults had some college in 1970, rising to 27.8 percent in 2010.

In Noble County, 7.6 percent of adults had some college in 1970, which grew to 26.4 percent in 2010. In LaGrange County, 5.7 percent of adults had some college in 1970 compared to 19.5 percent in 2010.

Overall, Stallmann says, the trends show that “rural people have responded to the demand for increased job skills by increasing their post secondary education.”

Steuben and DeKalb counties have a lower percentage than the nation and Indiana of adults who do not graduate from high school.

Only 10.6 percent of the adult population in Steuben County and 11.8 percent in DeKalb County had failed to graduate from high school in 2010. Nationally 15 percent of adults had not completed high school; in Indiana, the rate was 13.8 percent. In Noble County, the rate was 18.8 percent. It was 40.3 percent in LaGrange County, a reflection of the sizable Amish population that typically does not complete high school.

Mark Partridge, a rural economist at The Ohio State University, says that regional differences in college graduation rates have increased in recent years. Partridge said his studies have found that rural counties and counties with small cities in the South and West didn’t fare as well as those in the Midwest and Northeast in attracting college graduates. Even though the Sunbelt has seen tremendous growth over the past few decades, the South’s rural counties haven’t kept up in terms of attracting adults with college degrees.

But the problem of keeping college graduates in rural America is an enduring national issue.

Missouri economist Stallmann said this is a reflection of the kinds of jobs that are generally available in rural communities. If there are fewer jobs demanding college degrees in a community, there are likely to be fewer college graduates.

“It’s a big deal in a lot of rural counties, because you don’t see a lot of jobs that require a college education,” Stallmann said. Young people graduating from high school don’t see many jobs that demand a college diploma, so they don’t think about coming home once they leave for the university.

There can be a “self-reinforcing cycle” in rural communities, Stallmann said — young people leave to gain higher education, they don’t come back after college because there aren’t jobs that demand such education, and their absence diminishes the chances that more of these kinds of jobs will be created.

Nationally, rural counties and counties with small cities have caught up with urban counties in the percentage of adults who have some post-high-school education. Stallmann sees this as a sign that “there are perhaps more jobs in rural areas that require post secondary education but not college.”

Both Stallmann and Partridge said the data on college education rates told them that rural communities should consider the kind of jobs being created locally.

“Rural communities may need to think about the types of jobs” being created, Stallmann said. “There are some communities that are doing things like getting local businesses to put an emphasis on hiring local kids who got a college education.”

“It really suggests that rural communities that aren’t thinking about making themselves attractive to educated people are really going to suffer,” Partridge said.
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