Can State help break the cycle of poverty?

In the final installment of a series following up on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent article featuring Indiana State, we explore the lifelong value a college education provides.

Going to college was never up for debate for Kara Harris. In her family, it was mandatory.

Harris grew up in Sullivan County, where her father worked as a coal miner and farmer, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Neither of her parents went to college, and they saw a degree as a life-changing path to economic stability and freedom for Harris and her siblings.

Kara Harris, interim dean of the College of Technology

As a first-generation student, Harris earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Indiana State, then earned a doctoral degree at Clemson University. She is now the interim dean of the College of Technology.

Although she ultimately returned to the Wabash Valley, her path will undoubtedly create a ripple effect for her young children, who are already attending STEM camps in elementary school.

“I had a wonderful childhood,” said Harris. “But I look now at what we’re able to offer our children because of the experiences we’ve been given. We’re able to open their eyes to opportunities we would not have imagined as kids, and offer them the ability to explore and experience things that they wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise.”

Harris’ parents were on to something when they insisted she get at least a four-year degree.

On average, a college graduate can expect to earn 84 percent more over a lifetime than someone with a high school diploma — a high school graduate can expect to earn $1.3 million over their lifetime, while a college graduate can earn $2.3 million, according to researchers at Georgetown University.

And for students who continue their education with a master’s degree, professional degree or doctoral degree, the earnings potential is even higher, reaching well over $3 million in lifetime earnings.

Earnings aside, research shows that a college degree has social and emotional benefits, too. Americans with more education live longer and have fewer health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Georgianna Duarte

“There’s a lot of growing that occurs during their time as a student,” said Georgianna Duarte, the A. Elwood and Juneth S. Adams Endower Professor and chair of the department of teaching and learning in the Bayh College of Education. “When they attend a university, it is the social exposure and interaction that helps them make better life choices and live longer. We also tend to focus just on grades, rather than the emotional maturity of problem solving, relationships and happiness. This is part of it as well.”

Of course, there are some caveats. Race and gender still have an impact on earning potential, and some majors lead to more lucrative careers than others. But in today’s world, a college degree is always worth it.

“It’s a dramatic difference because our modern economy very much rewards education,” said Indiana State President Dan Bradley, who plans to retire in January. “There’s no doubt that your chances of having a bright economic future go way up by earning a college degree.”

Degree as catalyst

Across Indiana State’s campus, professors and staff members regularly hear from students who say they are changing their trajectory — and their family’s trajectory — with their degree from Indiana State.

“A student told me, ‘I need to get this degree so I can move my family out of Indianapolis,’” said Roberta Allen, director of the Center for Student Success. “He told me that he had been to dozens of funerals back home because of violence. He got his degree. He had three job offers waiting. And he’s moving. College was important for him — it was his opportunity to leave poverty and violence.”

For others, getting a degree from Indiana State is a chance to set an example for younger siblings.

Khari Jones

After not finishing high school, Khari Jones spent two years jumping from job to job in the Chicago metropolitan area — he worked at a movie theater, a dollar store, a car wash and a buffet restaurant.

“I was always getting in trouble,” Jones said. “I wasn’t looked at as being the college kid.”

But as the older brother to five siblings, Jones decided to go back and get his high school diploma. “I knew I had to be a leader for them,” he said.

He transferred colleges four times but finally found his niche at Indiana State, where he mentored first-year students through the ISUceed program and led the Collegiate Entrepreneur Organization on campus.

He graduated in May 2017 with a degree in recreational sports management and a minor in nonprofit leadership. This summer, he’s gearing up for graduate school at Saint Mary-of-the Woods-College.

And if he didn’t earn a bachelor’s degree? Jones said he’d probably still be making minimum wage and getting into trouble.

“It gives you more leverage,” he said of his Indiana State degree. “It gives you more power and more opportunities.”

Other Sycamores came to Terre Haute because someone in their life encouraged them to pursue a four-year degree — and they hope to be able to repay the favor someday.

“Many students share with me that they come from family situations that might not be ideal and situations of poverty or single-parent families,” said Kevin Bolinger, professor of teaching and learning in the Bayh College of Education. “Almost always when we ask them, ‘Why are you here?’ they don’t quote the statistics about how much money they’ll make. Something happened that inspired them — a teacher who made a difference in their lives.”

Career in focus

To ensure Sycamores can put their degree to use after graduation, the university has been adding new degree programs that align with workforce needs.

The College of Technology, for example, is launching a new bachelor’s degree of engineering with three concentrations that are expected to see future job growth in the state — mechanical, civil and industrial.

“In conversations, industry leaders were really looking for generalist students who can go through an engineering program that’s well-rounded,” Harris said. “We’re hoping it will make our students a little more versatile to the small Indiana manufacturer or engineering firm.”

Indiana State has also added a number of degrees in the growing field of health care, including graduate degrees in physician assistant studies, physical therapy, nursing and athletic training.

As State adds new degrees that can lead to well-paying jobs after graduation — many of them in STEM fields — university leaders are working make sure those programs are accessible to first-generation and low-income students, who often arrive at the university academically underprepared.

“Most of these programs that do have high earning potential have a significant quantitative component to them, so one of the things we’re really working hard at is helping get students that come to us underprepared in math up to speed,” said Bradley.

The university has also ramped up efforts to increase the number of Sycamores who complete their degree in four years. Though taking some college classes has been linked with higher wages, completing a degree has an even greater impact on a student’s financial outlook.

Linda Maule

Getting students into the degree completion mindset begins during their first week on campus. Linda Maule, dean of University College, tells first-year students during orientation that a college degree can no doubt change their life — but that doesn’t mean they can sit back and enjoy the ride.

“Education will transform their lives. It will transform their families’ lives,” Maule said. “This is an opportunity for them to change their current trajectory. But they have to put 110 percent into it.”

The campus is also creating more opportunities for students to work with academic and industry mentors. Those relationships can help students — particularly first-generation Sycamores — more successfully navigate college, internships, job interviews and any other unfamiliar experiences.

“It allows us to be able to build those bonds with students so they’re not too intimidated to ask a question,” Harris said of a mentorship program in the College of Technology. “Once they have that secure connection with the university, that’s when we want to begin making sure they have those connections with industry. Our students leave with the goal of being employed and our main goal is making sure they’re employed — we want the same thing.”

When they form relationships with faculty and staff on campus, Sycamores quickly learn that some of their professors were also first-generation students for whom college was a life-changing decision.

Once they learn that the confident men and women standing at the front of the classroom were once in their shoes, students can truly visualize the transformative power of a college degree. And no matter what path they choose after graduation, their degree gives them more agency in their lives.

“You might go to college and decide that, for personal reasons or family reasons, you’re going to go back home and run your family store or whatever, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Robin Burden, an associate professor of special education who was the first in her family to go to college. “But it’s your choice. It’s not something that’s thrust upon you because you don’t have other options.”

Read the article by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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