Study measures county educational attainment trends

April 27th, 2018

By Doug LeDuc | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

A Purdue University study shows four of northeast Indiana’s 11 counties outperformed the state by meeting or exceeding a 25-year national growth trend for educational attainment.

The report by Purdue’s Center for Regional Development, “People and Places: The Nature and Location of Talent in Indiana,” showed Indiana failed to keep pace with other U.S. states between 1990 and 2015 in the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education.

But, a comparison showed DeKalb, Noble, Steuben and Whitley were among 37 of Indiana’s 92 counties that matched or exceeded the nation’s 94.8 percent growth rate in the number of individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree.

A county population’s educational attainment level is affected by its number of residents enrolling in and graduating from bachelor’s and associate’s degree programs and by the amount of educated talent choosing to live and work in the county.

Researchers said population size also affects trend analysis because an increase in college graduates will have a bigger impact on a county with a smaller population.

The presence of a university – Trine University in Angola – and a quality of life that makes its graduates prefer to stay in an area can help with talent creation and retention, and Steuben County has both.

At Steuben County Economic Development Corp., “it is really hard to point to one item that has made this happen,” said Isaac Lee, executive director.

“I would like to think that Trine University is a huge part of our ability to gain more education attainment. But I also must not remove the idea that some of my communities are what one would consider retirement options,” he said. “Homes around the lake and in parts of the county are being sold to those who have done well for themselves in their careers. Most would assume, though not always the case, that those buying these homes are highly educated. This could also be a factor.”

During the last decade, Trine has responded to the educational needs of DeKalb, Noble, Steuben and Whitley counties by aggressively recruiting students there with the qualities, interests and talents deemed important for success in a challenging academic environment, said Scott Goplin, enrollment management vice president.

“The evidence of this success has been through our recognition by the Independent Colleges of Indiana as the fastest-growing private post-secondary school in the state,” he said.

“Our presence is felt through regular, statewide high-school visits by Trine representatives, attendance at numerous college fairs, Trine’s sponsorship of the annual Northeast Indiana College Fair, strategic marketing strategies to raise student and parent awareness, and annually hosting various student programs.”

High school age student programs hosted by the university include Indiana’s Hoosier Boys and Girls State programs, Walk Into My Future and Fort Wayne Heath Sciences Day.

During the past four years, more than 99 percent of the university’s graduates have been employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation, said Jason Blume, executive director for Trine’s Innovation One incubator for creativity, invention and design.

“In addition to providing career-ready skills through our academic programs, Trine puts an emphasis on internships and co-ops, many of which are served at northeast Indiana employers, and many of which eventually lead to full-time employment once students graduate,” he said.

About 90 percent of the university’s students complete an internship or co-op during their time at Trine. Its employment resource center helps students develop skills in preparing a resume, interviewing and networking through on-campus seminars and events.

The center also brings employers to campus throughout the year for career fairs related to specific academic schools, as well as an all-majors career fair in the spring.

“Trine has a very strong relationship with regional employers,” Blume said. “Besides internships and co-ops, area businesses and organizations provide real-life projects through Trine’s Innovation One incubator for students to complete, giving students hands-on experience while providing businesses access to Trine University resources to solve business problems.

“With these types of relationships, we are finding a growing number of our graduates are choosing to stay and work in this region,” he said.

Educational attainment is important to northeast Indiana’s economic development because the quality of its talent affects its attractiveness to employers. Lionel “Bo” Beaulieu, director of the center producing the Purdue study on educational attainment trends, said that economic development factor applies to the entire state.

“It can’t only be Fort Wayne-centric; it has to be really regional,” Beaulieu said. “With the rural counties in the region, we have to look at how we can really grow their economies and keep or attract talent.”

Northern county educational attainment success and other findings of the study support a regional approach to economic development taken by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

With many manufacturing employers in the region, its counties are going to see a growing need not only for highly skilled workers with bachelor’s degrees, but for more middle-skilled workers with associates degrees or training certificates.

DeKalb, Noble, Steuben and Whitley counties matched or exceeded national-growth trends for both categories of educational attainment, and Adams, Elkhart, Kosciusko, LaGrange and Wells counties matched or exceeded the national-growth trend for middle skills.

Three out of every four counties in Indiana matched or surpassed the national growth rate when it came to individuals with some college education or an associate’s degree.

In the middle-skill category, “while it looks really good on paper … most don’t have any degree per se,” Beaulieu said. “They lack that degree and I think increasingly they’re going to have to have some type of degree or certification.”

Improving the share of Indiana’s population with higher or middle skills will involve more than successful student recruitment efforts by educational institutions. It will require the kinds of jobs and quality of life that influence the location decisions of upskilled employees.

“That’s a chicken and egg issue,” Beaulieu said. “People with higher levels of education are more mobile.”

Beaulieu hopes information from the study is helpful to economic developers and officials involved in helping create government policy related to economic development.

Part of its usefulness may relate to helping the state and its regions and counties prepare for huge changes the workforce will see as automation and innovations such as artificial intelligence change the nature of many jobs, requiring mature workers to retrain for different careers, he said.