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The Community Education Coalition has set a goal of doubling the number of Bartholomew County residents holding two- or four-year degrees within the next three years.

About 30 percent of county adults now hold degrees in higher education, which is about 10 percentage points higher than the state average, said Mark Gerstle, vice president and chief administrative officer at Cummins Inc. and chairman of the coalition.

John Hogan, chancellor at the Columbus campus of Ivy Tech Community College, said the county’s above-average level of degreed adults is due primarily to the influence of Columbus-based Cummins Inc. The manufacturer is a strong supporter of efforts to raise educational expectations throughout the region from preschool through postsecondary education.

Reaching the postsecondary goals depends on increasing the community’s 82 percent high school graduation rate to 100 percent, which Gerstle called achievable.

“If we have 100 percent graduation, there has to be something after that,” Gerstle said. “We need to show people a college education is totally attainable.”

The coalition will use its Oct. 25 Community Ed Fest, a first-time event, to build awareness of affordable higher educational offerings close to home at Ivy Tech, IUPUC and Purdue College of Technology, all located on or near Central Avenue on the north side of Columbus.

“In Indiana, it’s unprecedented to have the three universities all in one place,” Gerstle said.

He contends the community can increase its level of educational attainment by doing something it has always done well: getting together to identify problems and solve them.

For years, Cummins has thrown its resources behind improving higher education and is leading a push to make prekindergarten education affordable to all families in the community. The local preschool effort hinges on a Nov. 6 referendum, which asks voters to pay higher property taxes to help fund the initiative.

Gerstle said both elementary education and higher education are vital components to making Bartholomew County unique — a place where people want to live and work.

Community Ed Fest intends to make people aware of the college services and opportunities already available and to show would-be students and their families how a local college education will pay handsome dividends.

“There’s very little you can do that has more value,” Gerstle said.

Local educational leaders say attending college here is exceedingly affordable, despite news stories that paint a picture of skyrocketing college costs and student indebtedness.

Joseph Fuehne, director of the Purdue University College of Technology in Columbus, said a student who is signed up for the 21st Century Scholars program and also receives a Pell Grant could attend college almost for free.

The 21st Century program calls for students to sign up in eighth grade for a free college education, available to Indiana families eligible for the free- or reduced-lunch program, provided minimum grade-point averages are maintained and students stay out of trouble. Virtually all of the eligible Bartholomew County eighth-graders — about half of the age group’s general population — are now signed up for that program.

Hogan said students from all economic walks of life can to go college locally for about one-fourth of going rates of attending the main campuses for Indiana University or Purdue University.

“We have a gold mine right here in Columbus,” said Marwan Wafa, vice chancellor and dean of IUPUC, about the local colleges’ offerings. “The best investment for yourself is higher education.”

Wafa and the other college administrators said Columbus is unique in its collaborative attitude about education.

“You need to deal with the root causes” of educational shortcomings, Wafa said, noting that Columbus community leaders have long embraced such an approach.

With higher level of educational attainment comes greater opportunities for local individuals once postsecondary degrees are attained. That means good jobs at good salaries.

Local manufacturers following Cummins’ lead in creating school-to-work programs are having a difficult time filling all the openings available to students who can work part time, Fuehne said.

“We don’t have enough students,” he said.

The organizers of Ed Fest are looking to change that.

Community Ed Fest

What: Community Ed Fest, a festive and educational showcase of college offerings available in Columbus

Who: Purdue College of Technology, Ivy Tech Community College and IUPUC

When: 5:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 25

Where: Campus Quad behind the Columbus Learning Center, 4555 Central Avenue.

INFORMATION: Free event will include food, games, music, T-shirts and door prizes that include a computer tablet. Nine $1,000 scholarships  will be awarded.

DEADLINE: Oct. 19

FOR MORE: communityedfest.com

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