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PUBLISHED CAPTION: The final graduating class of Richard Milburn High School tosses mortar boards Tuesday at the end of commencement at South Side High School. Fort Wayne Community Schools has pulled its contract with the private school, prompting the closure. (the 43 students of the last graduating class of richard milburn high school toss their mortar boards into the air at the end of the ceremony, tuesday at SSHS. hoffman photo)

Of the key takeaways listed in last week’s college readiness report on 2020 high school graduates, Hoosiers can be proud that 81% of

21st Century Scholars, 60% of dual credit students and 60.5% of women immediately continued their education after high school.

But cut the cheer short because the rest of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s examination ought to cause distress in anyone who cares about Indiana’s future. Just 53% of Hoosier high school graduates went to college in 2020 – a 6% decrease from the prior year.

Could it be that students just don’t see the relevance of higher education? Yes, unemployment is low and starting wages have increased, but the college-attending rate has declined by more than 12 basis points over the past five years. That suggests more than one reason.

The commission’s recommendations include putting more money into grants, auto-enrolling eligible students into the needs-based 21st Century Scholars program, increasing dual credit options, where students take classes for college credit, as well as communicating the value of higher education.

But we also need to rethink how we see ourselves as a workforce, observed Rachel Blakeman, director of Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Community Research Institute. We’re in an industrial, physical labor mindset clashing against a post-industrial truth.

“We prioritize physical labor as the ultimate show as a value of a worker,” she said. “College is not aspirational.”

And it shows for young Hoosier men, whose college-going rate has been in a decade-long slide. In 2010, 61.8% of males attended college after graduation. By 2020, the figure had dropped to 46% – 14.5 basis points lower than their female classmates.

Indiana’s trend mirrors a national slide, where “56.5% of the 2020 graduating class enrolled in post-secondary school immediately after graduating,” according to Education Week.

In Indiana, 43% of African Americans immediately enrolled in post-secondary education, down from 50%. Hispanic and Latino students saw their rates drop five percentage points to 44%.

What we know is that the downstream effects of individuals not earning a postsecondary credential can be clearly understood in earnings. In 2019, the person’s average net worth – all of one’s assets that can be turned into cash such as real estate, bank accounts and investments minus liabilities – with a high school diploma was $305,200; someone with some college or an associate degree had a net worth of $376,400; for a person with a bachelor’s degree or higher, the average was $1,519,900.

The median wage disparity between a person with some college or an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree or higher goes from $44,850 to $72,000.

That doesn’t mean everyone with a bachelor’s degree or higher is making that kind of cash. However, going after the sheepskin puts one in a far better position to succeed financially.

From a macroeconomic perspective, the news is troubling for a state that continues to wrestle with trying to keep graduates, incubate small businesses and new sectors, as well as bring in established organizations.

We’re losing the battle. Earlier this year, Eli Lilly and Co. announced it was spending $1 billion to build a new manufacturing plant in North Carolina. David Ricks, its chief executive officer, has said that education, upskilling workers and health care are the driving factors in the new economy.

We can’t compete with North Carolina’s Triangle; Austin, Texas; or Columbus, Ohio; if we don’t prioritize education. And that includes, Blakeman said, finding the highest and best potential for each student.

That’s where the conversation needs to start – finding what’s best for each student. As it stands now, we’re in for at least several more years of disappointment and angst.

Editorials are the opinion of The Journal Gazette Editorial Board: President Julie Inskeep, publisher Sherry Skufca, editorial page editor Fredrick McKissack and editorial writer Jeff Kovaleski.