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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Huntington University student David Barlow looks for accounting and finance opportunities during a career fair at IPFW this month. The Questa Foundation’s unique scholarship program is aimed at keeping northeast Indiana students in the region and also helping them accrue less college debt.

Keeping talent at home

Nearly 120 employers and 250 job recruiters were at an IPFW career fair this month to speak with potential hires – an encouraging sign for soon-to-be college graduates. Many of those students, however, are nervously eyeing job prospects with the burden of tremendous college-loan debt. The average Indiana student owes $27,000 for a four-year degree.

The Questa Foundation for Education is helping some area students with the debt portion of the problem, while also offering a strong incentive to stay and work in the region.

Students are forgiven as much as 50 percent of a $20,000 Questa Scholar loan if they choose to live and work in one of 11 northeast Indiana counties; as much as 15 percent if they remain for even a year. The unique program already is showing success.

Jordan Crosby is part of that success story. The Heritage High School graduate used his Questa loan at Trine University, where he earned a perfect grade-point average on his way to earning a degree in informatics. Since he graduated last spring, he’s worked as a business intelligence analyst at Medical Protective Co.

Crosby said much of his debt already has been forgiven. Questa’s Pay Back Partnership Program, available though Trine, IPFW, Huntington University and six other area schools, repays another 25 percent of the Questa loan.

“I didn’t have to take out any loans my last year,” he said. “The five years you stay and work here and your loan is forgiven – that really is an incentive.”

Skyler Spurling, a North Side High School graduate and current Questa Scholar, said the Questa loan was invaluable in meeting her tuition costs at IPFW. The loan-forgiveness feature also is a factor in her future plans. When she graduates in May, she hopes to attend law school in Michigan before returning to Fort Wayne.

“The fact that Questa will reduce a portion of my loan has greatly influenced my choice to move back to Fort Wayne,” Spurling said.

Jeff Berggren, senior vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Huntington, said 24 Questa Scholars are enrolled there, with the support of about $115,000 in loans. Loan forgiveness and the additional payback the partner universities contribute make it both an attractive program for students and an effective way to retain graduates, he said. The model also is a tool to approach other foundations and encourage them to invest in area students.

“I talk to colleagues nationally about this program,” Berggren said. “There’s nothing out there that’s this pro-active.”

In Huntington’s case, northeast Indiana not only retains talent but draws it. Berggren said just 57 percent of the university’s students are Indiana residents, but 72 percent of its graduates find jobs and stay here. Almost a third of those who enroll in graduate school stay in Indiana.

Getting the word out to prospective scholars and to donors looking for an effective way to invest in the regional economy are the goals for Marc Levy, executive director for Questa Foundation. He and his staff also are working with area schools to make funds more accessible. Some students, through their colleges, may now receive their first Questa loans as upperclassmen.

“There are some students who make it through their freshman and sophomore years with enough resources; then they may have to look at dropping out or going part time to work,” Levy said. “If we can help them stay enrolled full time and graduate with reduced debt, that’s what we want to do.”

In addition, Questa is working with Ivy Tech Community College to structure assistance for adults returning to school.

“This really is an investment in people and in our community,” Levy said. “We want to have people who are prepared for the economy of the 21st century, with livable-wage jobs.”

In doing so, Questa also has hit on a way to encourage them to stay in northeast Indiana with their newly earned talents and also begin a career without the burden of staggering debt. Its efforts will go a long way in helping produce more college grads for the region.