News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 9, 2012

EDITORIAL: Higher ed helps community shake off the rust of decline

ISU’s recent expansion provides base for future

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The upper Midwest often carries a less geographic label — the “Rust Belt.” It refers to a region whose economic engine once ran primarily on manufacturing but has seen its motor slow and corrode as plants and jobs in that sector moved elsewhere.

Indiana sits within the Rust Belt, but has retained more of its shine than the other states. It ranks first nationally in manufacturing jobs per capita, according to the Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research.

Nonetheless, the realities of the global economy have forced all states that have long relied on manufacturing to diversify their employment sector. That reality applies to cities, too, especially Terre Haute. Saddled with the state’s highest unemployment rate among its 13 metropolitan areas, Terre Haute needs key components of its local economic engine centered in sectors beyond manufacturing.

The good news is the community houses a growing, stable source of jobs and enrichment in Indiana State University.

ISU began its fall semester with 12,114 students, its highest enrollment since 1993. The university topped the 12,000 mark two years ahead of the benchmark set by its president, Daniel Bradley, back in 2009.

Last week, with that goal met, ISU announced its intention to reach an unprecedented enrollment of 14,000 by 2017. The largest student body in school history, 13,533, occupied the campus in 1971.

That aspiration is amazing, considering that just five years ago, in the spring semester of 2007, ISU’s enrollment had dwindled below 10,000, settling at 9,681.

For Terre Haute, the fiscal impact of the university’s hard-earned growth in numbers cannot be understated. A study by an Indianapolis-based market analysis firm, Thomas P. Miller and Associates, calculated ISU accounts for a $406 million chunk of the local economy. That figure, according to the Miller report presented to the ISU Board of Trustees on Thursday, was “very conservative.” It also was calculated for 2011, before the student body exceeded 12,000.

ISU directly employed 1,813 faculty and staff members in 2011, making it the area’s third-largest employer, just behind Union Hospital and the Vigo County School Corp. ISU expenditures support 4,200 local jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Statewide, its impact totals $519 million and 5,020 jobs.

Enrollment is just one crucial factor in the equation for a healthy public university. The number of students who actually receive their ISU degrees on time needs to significantly improve, too; the university also has made promising strides in that area.

A growing, active state university helps attract businesses and industries, in terms of economic development. It also raises the level of education within the population, through both graduates and resident instructors, which in turn could raise Terre Haute’s median household incomes, which fall far below state and national levels.

And, ISU’s vitality also can help the city realize some of its long-term visions, such as development of the Wabash River front (where the university aims to build enhanced athletic facilities) and downtown (where private student housing may emerge).

With an asset growing at that pace, rust will have a harder time setting in on Terre Haute.