Aaron Miller: Indiana must stress higher education

In June, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education was alarmed to find that only about half of the graduating seniors in the class of 2020 decided to pursue higher education of some kind. According to Ball State University economist Michael Hicks, Indiana comes in at a low 35th place in terms of average wages in the United States. To attract higher paying jobs, he suggests that Indiana needs to create more college graduates for the 21st century economy.

Hicks also argues that Indiana needs to spend more on schools and internet infrastructure. I highly recommend reading his report on Indiana’s Poor Economic Recovery, 2010-2019, And What It Means for Future Growth. I also suggest perusing Hicks’ columns, which often appear in the pages of The Republic.

Indiana has worked to provide accessible and affordable post-secondary education. That needs to continue and expand. But as with most challenges confronting us, I don’t think we can rely on government action alone.

The change will have to come from the people. To turn around this trend, we will need to create a culture that encourages young people to pursue education beyond high school. This could include two-year or four-year degrees, as well as one-year certificates or credentials. We also need to support our friends and family to return to school. Indiana needs a culture that encourages, fosters, and rewards lifelong learning.

Much of Indiana’s economic growth is concentrated in the Indianapolis area. As you drive through Indiana’s capital city, you see a new crop growing along Indiana’s highways. But instead of green, leafy plants, there are cavernous, sprawling warehouses sprouting up. Their size makes them hard to miss.

To some degree, the warehouses make sense. After all, Indiana bills itself as “The Crossroads of America.” But is this a good or bad trend for Indiana’s economic future? I honestly don’t know. But I don’t find becoming a shipping center for Amazon or big box stores as promising as some other possibilities.

I tend to think Indiana should return to its roots (pun intended): agriculture. The diversity of Indiana’s farming is stunning. Only city slickers and outsiders to our great state think that all we grow is corn. Indiana’s future could include all elements of agribusiness, including tourism. Kentucky’s development of the Bourbon Trail is a great example. Focusing on agriculture and renewable energy would also keep Indiana’s natural beauty intact.

With the impact of global warming only accelerating, tillable land will be at a premium. The continued drought in California, for example, means that those crops will need to be grown elsewhere. Global conflicts, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will also drive up the price of food — and arable land.

With all of this vibrant plant life around us and the potential to grow nearly anything, Indiana should be a leader in life sciences and biotechnology. Indiana could be the Silicon Valley of biotechnology. Considering that we are home to one of the nation’s great engineering schools, Purdue, and one of the country’s best medical schools at Indiana University, this makes even more sense.

Indiana also has a proud history in manufacturing, too — especially in automobiles and transportation. Indiana should embrace this tradition as well. Advanced manufacturing will provide the cutting edge opportunities and high wage jobs of the future.

All of these industries will require a skilled and educated labor force. Only this will ensure a prosperous future for Indiana. We will have to attract and cultivate the best and brightest. They will have to want to live here. To convince dynamic corporations of the future to stay or move to Indiana, it will require a large, diverse and highly educated pool of labor. This may be more important than tax breaks.

So what can we do? The next time we see a recent high school graduate who isn’t working or pursuing an education, and maybe playing a few too many video games, we will have to tell them, “get your butt to class.” Indiana’s future may depend upon it.