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Preparing the region’s students for the Knowledge Economy

By William J. Lowe, Ph.D., Chancellor, Indiana University Northwest

The economic prosperity and future success of our nation, and of Northwest Indiana, depends on our intellectual capital.

Now, more than ever, due to the complexities and competitiveness of an interdependent, globalized economy, colleges and universities, locally and nationally, must prepare their students for the expectations of a working environment rich in information, technology and innovation.

As Chancellor of Indiana University Northwest, I am proud to say that my colleagues and I take this charge seriously. We are producing graduates for the Knowledge Economy.

And, without a doubt, Northwest Indiana needs these graduates.

The presence of college graduates in a region is closely associated with economic growth, higher salaries and an attractive quality of life.  But, according to recent data from the Northwest Indiana Coincident Economic Index, published by the IU Northwest School of Business and Economics, our region continues to face challenges in sustaining economic growth, including the need to increase numbers of college graduates.

Despite the unemployment rate falling to around 5 percent, real income per person in Northwest Indiana has not increased since the end of the great recession, while, on average, it has grown 1.4 percent per year nationally.

And, according to a recent study by faculty in the IU Northwest School of Business and Economics, for each 1 percentage point decrease in the unemployment rate, a university in our region can experience as much as a 5 percent decline in enrollment.

Further, the study finds 75 percent of recent enrollment fluctuations are attributable to changes in the unemployment rate.

One of the reasons that the proportion of college graduates in Northwest Indiana is not growing more quickly is that students often interrupt their educations, for, in most cases, the kinds of jobs that college students have always held to support themselves and their studies: hourly jobs that pay modestly and are less likely to feature regular hours or fringe benefits.

While a student may find any job, even if it is low-paying, immediately attractive (and necessary, to pay for living expenses and college costs), failure to progress to a degree, or secure a more stable, long-term job due to lack of education, has severe long-term consequences, to the tune of an estimated $1 million loss in lifetime earnings.

To compete more effectively in the Chicago mega-region, North-west Indiana must look beyond our heavy-industry, manufacturing legacy and build a more diversified economy that employs and invests in our region’s college graduates and attracts new, well-credentialed and well-paid residents.

The national spotlight Northwest Indiana recently received following the City of Gary’s appeal to attract the new Amazon headquarters demonstrates both the need to embrace the Knowledge Economy, and our ability to do so.

Up for the challenge

Local colleges and universities stand ready, with resources, knowledge and expertise, to help students fulfill their potential, earn their degrees, and be transformed into the innovative, forward-thinkers our region needs. A well-educated and versatile workforce is, as the data suggest, one of the essential factors in attracting and retaining Knowledge Economy development, jobs and investment.

But we also need you. We need the leaders of Northwest Indiana who employ and manage college-bound or college-enrolled employees.

While in college, I was very fortunate to have held hourly jobs with employers who not only valued my work but often evinced pride in having a college student work for them.

From dishwasher to delivery driver, it was these roles that provided me with valuable working experience and career lessons from which I learned a great deal that contributed substantively to building my professional future.

My employers saw something in college attendance beyond the hourly work I performed. They recognized the larger social and economic good, for me, their communities and the country.

So, I ask this of Northwest Indiana employers: Please encourage the college students who work for you to make progress toward completing their degrees. Provide them with the necessary accommodations, so they can successfully balance the competing responsibilities of college, work and family. And, most important, show them you care not only about their individual futures but the future vitality of this region.

By doing so, employers will contribute to a “virtuous cycle” that pays off in a better-educated, more economically prosperous region, ripe for the challenges, and opportunities of the Knowledge Economy.

William J. Lowe is Chancellor of Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind. As one of seven Indiana University camp-uses, IU Northwest leads the Northwest Indiana region as the premier, urban campus dedicated to serving the needs of more than 4,000 students from the state’s most diverse and industrialized region.

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