News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

September 2, 2012

MARK BENNETT: A growing Indiana State University creates a valuable asset for Terre Haute

TERRE HAUTE — A wise NFL team plays to its strength.

Last season’s most run-reliant club in the league, the Denver Broncos, hired as its quarterback Peyton Manning, the NFL’s most prolific passer.

It’s safe to say, the Broncos will throw the ball more often this season, if they intend to capitalize on Manning’s arm, smarts and talent. Going status-quo — having a 4,000-yards-a-year passer hand off over and over simply because “that’s what we do in Denver” — would be a waste.

Likewise, in the race for economic vitality, wise communities follow a similar strategy by growing through their strongest assets. A promising announcement last week reaffirmed a stark reality for Terre Haute — Indiana State University’s student body is growing, and will likely continue to grow for several more years, and the city should not be shy about riding that horse, or bronco (pardon the pun).

ISU is clearly an ace-in-the-hole for Terre Haute, with staying power.

This fall, university’s overall enrollment has climbed to 12,114. That’s up 5 percent from last fall.

It marks the third consecutive year of significant increases in student headcounts. Three years ago, ISU President Dan Bradley set a goal to hit the 12,000 mark by 2014, which amounted to a 14-percent jump over the 2009 enrollment. Thanks to a Herculean, tense, exhaustive effort by faculty, staffers, administrators and students, ISU topped that benchmark two years early, despite operating under intensified accountability measures and restricted funding by the state. The last time ISU had 12,000 students was 1993.

Impressive and admirable.

The feat represents a reversal of fate. Just a decade ago, the university’s enrollment was dropping steadily and its niche among Indiana’s public colleges got murky. Now, after surpassing the enrollment target in its comeback, ISU is recalculating. Bradley has asked administrators to present a new enrollment benchmark for 2017 to the board of trustees at this week’s meeting, said Teresa Exline, Bradley’s chief of staff.

That goal could be 14,000, John Beacon — ISU’s vice president for enrollment management, marketing and communication — suggested Thursday.

In its 147-year history, ISU has never had a student body of 14,000. Its peak came in 1971, with 13,533.

“It’s a place where people want to be,” Beacon said of ISU in an interview with the Tribune-Star’s Sue Loughlin on the day of the announcement.

It’s a source of vigor in an era when Terre Haute needs it. An entity in such a busy state stands out here. Among the state’s 13 metropolitan statistical areas, the Terre Haute MSA (which includes Vigo, Clay, Sullivan and Vermillion counties) holds the highest unemployment rate, 10.5 percent in July. Of the 372 metros in America, only 49 have higher jobless rates than Terre Haute. The July unemployment rate within the city itself is even higher, 11.2. By contrast, the overall unemployment rate for the state is 8.3 percent, and the nation’s is 8.6.

On top of that, two crucial segments of our local population crucial to any hopes of growth — prime working-age (35 to 44) adults, and school-age kids — are shrinking. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, Vigo County saw its 5-to-18 population drop by 1,401 (while the U.S. numbers increased) and its 35-to-44 sector decrease by 1,863 (a number even more surprising, considering the county added 1,487 federal inmates, many of which fall in that 35-to-44 group).

To grow and prosper, Terre Haute needs more of those working-family-age residents. ISU already is growing and determined to continue that growth. The community has forever wrestled with the notion of functioning as a college-town. If ever there was an appropriate moment to embrace that possibility, now is it. Among numerous plans, ISU wants to expand its student housing into the downtown, with 600 student beds located above retail spaces around Wabash Avenue. That venture involves ISU, a private developer and property owners, five historic buildings, and the question of whether to renovate or build anew on those sites.

Whatever the decision, Terre Haute is blessed just to be considering it. Most American cities would envy the economic and cultural potential of having a 14,000-student public university, along with the nation’s best engineering school, a historic women’s college, a bustling community college, and a business college.

To arrive at this point, ISU had to solidify its status among potential students. As its enrollment flatlined and then began dropping, some other Indiana public colleges grew. “In the meantime, schools like Ball State were very, very aggressive,” Beacon said. Through myriad efforts, the university retooled its image in those students’ eyes from a safe backup choice to a primary destination. “If we have niche, I think it’s that solid B-plus/A-minus student who’s a good citizen,” Beacon added.

The market for students is competitive. Ball State and ISU, for example, once had similar enrollments. ISU hit 10,529 in 1966, a year after Ball State totaled 10,066 students. In 2011-12, Ball State had 22,147 undergrad and graduate students. As ISU has played catch-up, its reputation has firmed up. “Each year we grow, we’re convincing more people,” Beacon said.

ISU faces strong challenges, including state funding based on four-year and six-year graduation rates, two areas the university wants and needs to improve upon. Nonetheless, with initiatives like its four-year Sycamore Graduation Guarantee (in which ISU promises to cover the cost of extra courses needed beyond the fourth year for students who meet guidelines), Indiana State is taking on those challenges aggressively.

That’s a strength to play to, for Terre Haute.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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