No county left behind?

The education level of adults in most Indiana counties falls below the national average. Improved access to higher education and new high-tech jobs can help Hoosiers make up lost ground. The distance between many Indiana workers and most of the nation's top jobs cannot be measured in miles, but in degrees—college degrees.

Management and professional jobs make up the fastest growing and dominant occupational sector in the country, comprising almost one-third of the total U.S. labor force. However, most Indiana workers do not qualify for those jobs, because less than 25 percent of Hoosier adults have a four-year college degree, according to the most recent Census data.

A Purdue University publication called "No County Left Behind?" relates the significance of education to Indiana's economic future.

In this report card on the status of education in the state, Purdue agricultural economist Brigitte Waldorf says all but five of Indiana's 92 counties lag behind the national standard for educational attainment.

In 1970, the percentage of Hoosier adults with four-year college degrees was 2.4 percentage points below the U.S. average. In 2000, that dropped to 5.5 percentage points lower.

Waldorf says the state does have more high-school graduates than many states, but about 22 percent of those who earn a high school diploma do not intend to further their education. Not a good sign, given that higher education is linked to higher-paying jobs.

"We need students to think that going to college is the norm, rather than something that is unattainable," she says.

The chicken or the egg?

Which comes first? Do you attract good-paying jobs with a highly educated workforce, or do you get highly educated people because of good-paying jobs?

Indiana's "Knowledge Corridor" is a narrow stretch of counties with the highest percentage of educated residents and professional and technical jobs. The graphic illustrates the percentage of county residents with at least a four-year college education. (Circle size is proportional to the percentage.)

Professional and management jobs are part of what Waldorf calls the "knowledge economy." These jobs rely on employees who can work in high-tech industries and have specific expertise. The nation and Indiana are most likely to compete for jobs in that area, as manufacturing plants continue to go overseas. "We might lose our competitive advantage in manufacturing because workers in other countries can receive lower wages," Waldorf says. "Indiana is already behind but could invest in the knowledge sector as a way to create more jobs."

Despite the state's overall status, there is an area of Indiana where highly educated adults tend to reside. It lies in a narrow corridor starting at Purdue, running down to Indianapolis and then south to Indiana University.

In 2000, 40 percent of Indiana's well-educated population lived in the eight counties along this stretch. Manufacturing jobs in this slice of the state are less prevalent, and there are twice as many professional and technical jobs in the area as compared to the rest of the state.

Waldorf refers to the sector as Indiana's "Knowledge Corridor," and says this central region represents a powerful weapon in the state's economic arsenal. "This area has the opportunity for unprecedented economic growth involving, for example, research, development and innovation."

Waldorf suggests that the benefits of Indiana's Knowledge Corridor, with its highly educated population and research universities, could spill over into neighboring counties, as companies and workers locate in the surrounding area.

To take advantage of this tiny treasure trove, the state could invest in communications and transportation improvements in the area and market the corridor as a region for job creation.

Ultimately, the entire state could profit she says, if the corridor were uniquely positioned similar to areas of the country, such as the "Research Triangle" in North Carolina and California's "Silicon Valley."

The possible benefits of developing Indiana's Knowledge Corridor are described in her Purdue publication of the same name.

Collaboration beats competition

Economic development is often looked at from either the state or the local level. However, real economic opportunity lies in regional development where close-by communities collaborate rather than compete for companies.

To maximize opportunities such as Indiana's Knowledge Corridor, the Purdue Center for Regional Development (PCRD) was established to provide information and form partnerships that foster regional approaches to economic development.

PCRD, which published Waldorf's work, supports applied research, policy analysis, educational forums and access to university technology and expertise. "Our goal is to help Indiana become the nation's leader in supporting creative regional development," says Sam Cordes, center co-director and assistant director of Purdue Extension.

However, the state has a long way to go and an urgency to get there. "Indiana is making strides," Waldorf says. "The thing is that other states are making strides, too. For economic development to succeed, we have to highlight the positives and build upon our momentum."

"No County Left Behind?" and "Indiana's Knowledge Corridor" are available on the Purdue Center for Regional Development Web site

Contact Beth Forbes at