DEGREE OF CHANGE

A greater number of Bartholomew County residents have earned higher-education degrees during the past decade, but the correlation between low levels of educational attainment and living in poverty also has become more apparent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The bureau’s latest American Community Survey five-year estimate for 2010-14 showed that county residents living in poverty increasingly did not have at least a bachelor’s degree when compared to the previous five-year estimate for 2005-09. The poverty rate for county residents with less than a high school diploma jumped by nearly 7 percentage points and increased nearly 5 percentage points for people with just a high school diploma.

For people with some college or an associate degree, the poverty rate rose about 2 percentage points. However, the poverty rate dropped about a half-percentage point for those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

The survey data showed modest increases in the percentage of residents who were high school graduates and those with post- secondary degrees — most notably a bachelor’s degree.

Local education stakeholders said they are pleased that more local residents are attaining higher levels of education, attributing the increases to the steady buildup of local colleges and programs intended to help students stay on track to graduate high school.

However, they also expressed concern about the increased poverty rates for those with less education because of the impact it has on a person’s ability to earn a good income.

“It’s like we are taking the middle of a hose and squeezing the water out of both ends. One end sees the light and the other end is pushed further from the light and has to work even harder to make it back to the starting point with all of the kinks and knots tied in it. Moral to the story: Stay in school and get post-high school training or education,” said Laura Hack, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s director of elementary education.

According to a United Way report on those who are considered asset limited, income constrained and employed (ALICE), a family of four in Bartholomew County needed a household income of $50,145 as of 2012 just to survive. That figure doesn’t allow for savings or unexpected expenses.

The median income for an individual in Bartholomew County, as tied to educational attainment, reaches $50,000 with at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the American Community Survey data.

But there are more pressing matters for a lot of residents who are struggling financially.

Seeing the big picture

Many United Way clients in Bartholomew County are making decisions only about the next day or next week, and the challenge for case managers is to help them see the long-term view of more education improving their situations, said Mark Stewart, president of the county organization.Educational attainment is not just a local issue but also a regional issue, said John Burnett, president and CEO of the Columbus-based Community Education Coalition.More than 20 percent of the people who work in Columbus live elsewhere, Burnett said. Employers are trying to fill jobs that require advanced skills that are obtained through higher education.

“This topic of attainment is the key to our future as a community,” Burnett said.

Increases in educational attainment reflected in the survey data indicate that collective efforts over about 20 years are bearing fruit, as are recent initiatives, Burnett said.

The education coalition, which started in 1997, collaborates with education, business and community leaders to align the local and regional learning system with economic growth and a high quality of life.

“One of the biggest things that’s happened is the growth of higher education, which you see out by the airport,” said John Quick, Bartholomew County School Corp. superintendent.

IUPUC, Ivy Tech, Purdue Polytechnic Institute, Harrison College and Trine University share campus space on property owned by Columbus Municipal Airport. The colleges have added degree programs for students over the years, making them an increasingly popular option for students. The colleges have also stressed cost savings local students realize by getting or starting a college education close to home.

In fact, colleges near the airport — led by IUPUC and Ivy Tech — have become the top destination for Columbus high school seniors, Quick said.

Educators said initiatives to help students graduate and make college a possibility also have contributed to increases in educational attainment.

Tuition-free education

On a broad scale, Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program began in 1990 to ensure that every Hoosier has an opportunity to earn a college degree. Students from families that meet income guidelines and keep other commitments are eligible to receive up to four years of tuition at state colleges or universities. Applications are made during seventh or eighth grade.Hunter Foist, a 2013 Columbus East High School graduate and a junior at Indiana University in Bloomington, said that the 21st Century Scholars program made college an affordable option for him.Foist said going to college was stressed in his family, with both parents holding post-secondary degrees. But affording college was going to be problematic, he said.

He learned about the 21st Century Scholars program in middle school and signed up when he became eligible. In exchange for IU paying his tuition, room and board and meal costs, Foist has had to meet the requirements of maintaining good grades, exhibiting good behavior and refraining from drugs and alcohol.

Without the program, “I would have gone into huge school debt,” said Foist, who wants to become an English teacher.

Foist said he plans to do his student teaching in inner-city Chicago through an urban education program so he can show students that higher education is possible, even if they might not initially think so.

Most recently, the iGrad program started locally in 2012 uses mentors among resources intended to help struggling students graduate from high school.

Mentors influence

Erica Atkinson, a 2014 Hauser High School graduate, was an iGrad participant and said the mentoring program helped her focus during a difficult time, and to realize the value of education.Charts and other information shared with iGrad students showed how income levels rise with additional schooling, said Atkinson, now a student at IUPUI in Indianapolis.“I think iGrad really opened my eyes because just where you came from doesn’t mean that’s where you have to stay,” Atkinson said.

She got involved in iGrad late in her junior year and continued through her senior year, a time when she had moved away from home because of difficult family circumstances and when she struggled trying to balance a job and school. Atkinson said she struggled to stay motivated about school, even though she made fairly good grades

However, daily interaction with an iGrad coach first helped Atkinson deal with life issues, such as car insurance and paying taxes. Clearing such obstacles then allowed her to focus better on school, she said.

Atkinson graduated with a technical honors diploma, then headed to Ivy Tech’s Columbus campus to continue her education.

At the advice of her iGrad coach, Atkinson participated in Ivy Tech’s ASAP program, which allows students to earn an associate degree in 11 months rather than two years. Atkinson said she initially hesitated doing that because of a requirement that students not work more than 25 hours per week. However, Atkinson’s iGrad coach helped her find a family willing to let her stay rent-free so she could focus on school.

Now, Atkinson is studying to earn a bachelor’s degree in exercise science with hopes of being admitted into IUPUI’s physical therapy program.

Atkinson said she would be the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Top college choices

The top post-secondary choices for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. seniors from 2011-13 were:

IUPUC: 16.7 percent

Ivy Tech: 16.2 percent

Indiana University (Bloomington): 14.7 percent

Purdue University: 9.3 percent

Ball State University: 6.6 percent

Source: Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

Pull Quote

“It’s like we are taking the middle of a hose and squeezing the water out of both ends. One end sees the light and the other end is pushed further from the light and has to work even harder to make it back to the starting point with all of the kinks and knots tied in it.”

— Laura Hack, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. director of elementary education

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.