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High school graduation is approaching and as seniors get ready to take their next steps in life, for most, those next steps won’t include a college degree.
Or, at least, for those that do obtain one, they may not be sticking around northeast Indiana once they have that university sheepskin in hand.
When it comes to educational attainment, northeast Indiana’s rural counties are far behind the statewide average, while Indiana as a whole trails the national average when it comes to post-secondary education.
Workers with higher educational attainment, on average, go on to higher median earnings, while trends in the national economy are showing more opportunity for people with degrees while the supply of non-college jobs is not expanding.
Statewide economists and business leaders have been ringing alarm bells about Indiana’s lagging higher education numbers as a threat to long-term economic health of the state, while recent trends already show that Indiana population growth and migration of highly educated workers have been heavily concentrated in metro regions, leaving rural parts of the state behind.
Still, there can be a path to success and prosperity that doesn’t run through a college campus, but even then, students should be making preparations before leaving high school to give them the greatest chance of grabbing a high-paying or skilled position after walking at graduation.
Counties trail state, state trails nation
Nationally, about 1 in 3 Americans age 25 and older owns a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In Indiana, however, that rate is lower, and in the northeast Indiana region, lower still.
Statewide, 27.2% of Hoosiers hold a bachelor’s or graduate degree, while about 8.9% have earned a two-year associate’s degree.
The rest of the state is made up of people who have “some college” but never completed a degree program at 20.1%, Hoosiers with a high school diploma or GED only at 33.2% and those with less than a high school education at 10.7%. Indiana’s high-school-only rate is higher than the national average of 26.7%.
Locally, Allen County — bolstered by metro Fort Wayne — is the only one a little ahead of the state average with 29% of its residents holding four-year degrees or higher.
Elsewhere in the region, five other counties are all lower.
Steuben County is the next best in the region with 22.5% of residents holding bachelor’s degrees or higher — no doubt boosted by the presence of Trine University in Angola; followed by Whitley County at 22.4%; DeKalb County at 18%, Noble County at 15.4% and LaGrange County as one of the state’s lowest at only 11.6%.
LaGrange County has one of, if not the highest, less-than-high school populations in the state, at 39%, due to its large Amish population that typically does not attend school past eighth grade.
Noble County also exceeds the state and national average for less-than-high-school-educated residents by a fair margin, at 16.1% compared to 10.5% and 10.7% as U.S. and Indiana rates, respectively.
The fall-off in educational attainment has been a somewhat modern issue for Indiana, said Michael Hicks, the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics and Business Research and director of the Center Business Economic Research at Ball State University.
In the 1940s, Indiana was on average footing with the rest of the U.S. in terms of educational attainment. Over the ensuing decades, however, Indiana started to slip behind relative to other states, with a much greater gap seen over the last decade.
Absolute educational attainment nowadays is overall higher than it was 50 years ago, but Indiana’s standing relative to the other 49 states is much lower, Hicks said.
That greater disparity relative to the rest of the U.S. comes at a cost.
On average, higher education leads to higher earnings.
That’s not to say that’s the case in every situation — highly skilled tradespeople can, for example, significantly out-earn some college grads both in short- and long-term situations — but across the entire economy, the disparity in educational attainment that’s existed for decades is still fairly stark.
In Indiana, Hoosiers with less than a high school education earn, at median, $25,112 per year; followed by $31,968 for high school grads; a small bump to $36,600 for those with some college or associate degrees; and then a leap to median earnings of $50,751 for those with a bachelor degree and $64,207 for graduate degree holders.
While college seekers do incur cost and lose time by seeking more education instead of work — and may stumble in years afterward while working on repayment in the early years of their careers — long term, the median college graduate is more likely to out-earn a high school diploma peer.
That being said, there are opportunities for high school graduates to make bank, even right out of school.
“I’m at a point where I’m getting to where I would kind of challenge that a little bit, for the tremendous opportunity that is out there is skilled trades,” Impact Institute Executive Director Jim Walmsley said. “We’ve got people leaving our program, lowest starting wages is $15 per hour. We’ve got kids coming out of our programs coming out of school at $20 per hour.”
Individual results may vary, but the data has held that disparity for years and, actually, the college-educated earners have been seeing wages increase at slightly larger rates than their high school graduate peers, Hicks said.
“Over a lifetime, there is the college wage premium has continued to rise,” Hicks said. “The anecdotes are there, I get that, but the actual data on the performance of college students has been pretty good.”
Income numbers also don’t account for two other factors harder to quantify — job security and job prospects.
During the Great Recession in 2008 and extending into the following years, high school graduates jobs were walloped across the economy, accounting for about 78% of job losses in 2009 and 2010 across the U.S. economy. Some college/associate degree job holders accounted for another 25%.
If you’re doing the math and those add up to more than 100%, well, that’s correct, as bachelor-plus workers actually saw jobs added during the deep downturn.
Meanwhile, as the economy continues growing, job creation trends have shown that close to 100% of the new net jobs being gained are those for college graduates, Hicks said.
That doesn’t mean that there are no jobs for high school graduates, Hicks explained, just that the economy is maintaining about the same level of jobs for that education level. Young workers may replace older workers leaving the workforce, but there aren’t huge prospects of new opportunities at that education level beyond what exists or what is replacing what goes away.
“What that means is if you’re a region and all your net job is going to come, on average, in college graduates, if you’re producing a small number of college graduates you’re not going to see economic growth,” Hicks said. “That’s a pretty dismal prognosis. If you’re in a rural community is that if you’re not producing an abundance of college graduates and keeping them in your community, then you’re probably not going to see a lot of economic growth.”
The results of the 2020 U.S. census seem to support that assertion.
When it comes to Indiana’s rural counties, “brain drain” is often the name of the game.
For those not familiar with the rhyming lingo, “brain drain” is the term used to describe the ongoing migration trends of highly educated residents leaving rural communities and flocking primarily to metro areas.
The 2020 U.S. census showed that the state’s 44 counties included as part of metro areas gained about 6.3% population over the 2010-2020 decade, while the other 48 outside of metros — rural counties — lost 0.6% of their populations.
Intertwined in those population trends is also an educational trend.
Of the five counties that grew the most in the past decade — Indianapolis border counties Hamilton, Boone, Hendricks, Johnson and Hancock — all five had educational attainment levels higher than the state average, ranging from about 31% of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher in Hancock County to a state-high 59.3% in Hamilton County.
Conversely, the five counties with the biggest population declines — Switzerland, Greene, Parke, Randolph and Pulaski counties — all have higher-education rates less than 15%, with Switzerland the lowest at just 10.9% of people holding a bachelor’s or higher.
When looking at Indiana’s data, the path to keeping and attracting more highly educated residents to your community is, somewhat intuitively, to have better K-12 education in your community.
“The things that are most likely to attract residents are also the things that are most likely to improve educational attainment,” Hicks explained.
In a large-scale quality-of-life study done nationwide, counties that have pleasant geographic features like lakes or mountains or good weather got a small bump, while amenities like parks and restaurants and entertainment were positives too.
Proximity to an urban center, health outcomes and crime rates start showing more of an impact, but by and large the No. 1 correlation among areas of high population growth versus those that weren’t growing was high-quality K-12 schools.
“The No. 1 correlate of quality of life as measured by housing markets and labor markets was quality of local public schools and spending on public schools,” Hicks said.
That may explain why Indiana has been losing ground nationally on educational attainment, as Indiana’s education spending, when adjusted for inflation, has fallen almost 20% since the Great Recession.
Good schools that produce students who are more likely to go on to pursue post-secondary education not only help to attract high-earning, highly educated parents, but then also produce college graduates who have a hometown tie to your community. Many may seek employment in metro areas, but the more college grads being produced, the more that are also likely to come home, Hicks said.
“You really have to have a school people are dying to get their kids into and you need to make sure those schools are spitting out enough people with the type of degrees that labor markets need,” Hicks said. “The good thing is that, post-COVID, is those are all kinds of degrees.”
For those that don’t seek college, however, that’s not to say a high school diploma is the end of their education.
Making it work
College simply isn’t for everyone, but even those students who don’t want to pursue another degree should be seeking to build the best skill set they can.
Indiana’s median income for high school graduates of about $32,000 is just that, a median, a midpoint. Half of earners will earn less. Half of earners will earn more.
High school grads who want to earn in that upper half, or in some cases even out-earn college graduates, need to build a set of valuable skills, Walmsley said.
“What we say all the time is we want to build a solid set of basic skills in those fields that we’re training them for so they are employable, more employable than someone walking in off the street,” Walmsley said of the vocational programs at Impact that serve 13 high schools in the region. “That allows that employer to take those basic skills they’ve already learned and mold and shape them into what they need.”
Students who go through an Impact program and get welding skills or leave high school with acceptance into an apprenticeship program in plumbing or electrical are likely going to have career and earnings advantages over someone who simply completes the high school curriculum and wanders off into the job market.
But even for students who take that route, Walmsley said, employers are often looking to find those general workers and evolve them to the next level.
“If students are leaving school in that category and then they’re being hired at the entry-level production-types of position, the vast majority of the folks we talk to and partner with are always looking for ways to try to skill those people up as well,” Walmsley said. “Those that are willing to want to do those types of things will find ways and have ways put in front of them to keep climbing the ladders, those rungs on those ladders will have dollar figures attached to them.”
Still, Hicks warns that there’s a limit to growth opportunities even in those high-wage fields. Again, because net new job growth in non-college jobs has been pretty flat — even high-earning fields like plumbing, bricklaying and electrical are in demand — those fields aren’t seeing major position gains over replacement level, Hicks said.
Because of that, a college grad may have more and wider options available throughout their career, while high school grads are likely to be in fiercer competition for positions, especially the higher-paying ones.
“You’re going to have to wait for someone to retire for there to be a job for you,” Hicks said. “There are openings for people who have been to college, where the growth is being seen.”
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