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The Power of higher education: Indiana University Northwest’s role in regional economic growth

Community Mar 26, 2024

Indiana University Northwest Chancellor, Ken Iwama. Indiana University Northwest Chancellor, Ken Iwama.This story first appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana’s progress edition.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration describes the positive dynamic of economic development as creating the “conditions for economic growth and improved quality of life by expanding the capacity of individuals, firms, and communities to maximize the use of their talents and skills to support innovation, lower transaction costs, and responsibly produce and trade valuable goods and services.”

In my experience, the flashpoint of economic development in a geographical area occurs when businesses, economic development associations, community organizations, education institutions, political bodies, and other vital entities align and leverage their respective missions across sectors.

I believe we are experiencing such a flashpoint in Northwest Indiana, a catalytic effect where the whole — in this case, the south shore of Lake Michigan — becomes greater than the sum of its parts, allowing us to lead the wider region collectively.

Higher education’s role

Indiana University Northwest, a public regional institution of higher education of Indiana University, plays a vital part in this dynamic. We have advanced new projects and initiatives dedicated to forwarding the economy and quality of life through cross-sector mission alignment and powerful partnerships.

Most recently, through IU Northwest’s Center for Urban and Regional Excellence, we have joined the Tolleston Opportunity Campus (TOC), committing our research, data analysis, and community-building expertise to the project.

The TOC represents an unprecedented collaboration among the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Northwest Indiana, Crossroads YMCA, and Methodist Hospitals, to establish integrated healthcare services, youth development and educational programming, and safe community spaces. Supported by $30 million in funding from the City of Gary, the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation, and the READI grant program/Northwest Indiana Forum, this consortium aspires to become a national model for urban renewal.

IU Northwest also continues to drive innovation and entrepreneurship through our School of Business and Economics’ partnership with the City of Gary to create the StartUp Business Success Program. This past fall, approximately 50 Gary residents participated in the inaugural cohort: a four-week certificate program concentrating on marketing, financial management, customer segmentation, and business plan development, culminating in grant funding awards and a vendor showcase event.

The StartUp Business Success Program, along with our new student RedHawk Entrepreneurs program and our burgeoning Small Business Academy’s networking and speaker series, is creating an array of start-up business support for local entrepreneurs.

Additionally, we are in the process of creating a new economic development program with a major partner to educate region leaders about the policy and practice of economic development and how they, and the institutions they represent, can better engage with, and contribute to, the region’s economy and quality of life.

Connecting energies

We will connect these entrepreneurship and economic energies with the new IU Innovates Hub, which provides a focal point for accelerating the university’s entrepreneurship and innovation activities statewide and will allow IU Northwest and the region to access and utilize this comprehensive support ecosystem.

Driven by the priority of IU 2030’s strategic plan to propel our “Service to Our State and Beyond,” we have more opportunities than ever to draw upon IU’s combined strengths to energize Northwest Indiana.

This regional energy can also reach into Chicago’s economic ecosystem and beyond. Having lived in New Jersey and worked in New York City before coming to Northwest Indiana, I know how adjacent regional communities derive energies from a major city, but also how the reverse can be true. One great local example can be found within our School of the Arts, the only arts school in Northwest Indiana, where our artists shape cultural innovation.

IU Northwest fine arts faculty member Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford helped lead the curation of the 5th edition of the Chicago Architectural Biennial, one of the most significant international exhibitions of groundbreaking architectural designs and projects. Centered at the Chicago Cultural Center and integrated throughout multiple indoor and outdoor venues across Chicago, this year’s edition, “This is a Rehearsal,” is indicative of the great potential for IU Northwest and regional energies to influence Chicagoland.

The power of higher education

Ultimately, however, the vitality of higher education institutions in Northwest Indiana will determine the long-term future and sustainability of our region. There is a growing national narrative that colleges and universities are too expensive, burden students with unnecessary debt, and do not provide significant advantages in employment. In reality, the path to well-paying jobs is still through degree attainment. Employers participating in a 2023 Recruiting Benchmarks Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers indicated that “an average of nearly 70 percent of their entry-level jobs require a bachelor’s degree,” a finding which is consistent with other predictions regarding the future demand for college graduates in the workforce.

Moreover, public regional institutions, like IU Northwest, offer some of the lowest net educational costs for four-year institutions in the country while providing the highest quality of education. IU Northwest was recently recognized by Third Way, a national policy institute, in their annual Economic Mobility Index report as having the highest economic mobility index score — or strongest return on investment (ROI) — for students in Northwest Indiana.

This represents the true value narrative of higher education. If we are indeed at a flashpoint in Northwest Indiana, it is our region’s colleges and universities that will enable our communities to take full advantage of the social and economic opportunities inherently promised by inclusive economic development.

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The cover of Spirits' latest magazine. The cover art, titled Colored Bathroom was created by local artist Madeline Richardson.
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