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Access to ongoing education vital to raising quality of life

Danielle DotsCalumet City walks class IndianUniversity Northwest Gary Wednesday Feb. 20 2013. Dotsjunior is working degree business management. | Andy

Danielle Dotson, of Calumet City, walks to class at Indiana University Northwest in Gary Wednesday Feb. 20, 2013. Dotson, a junior, is working on a degree in business management. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:24AM



Tracy Traut left her job in Chicago to take care of a sick parent.

Danielle Dotson needed to focus on caring for her five children.

But after a while the two mothers felt the urge to re-enter the workforce. Both had started college, but never finished their degrees. They headed to Indiana University Northwest, where the flexible schedule and older student body helped them achieve their goals.

Northwest Indiana colleges and universities serve students across the age and experience spectrum.

The 2012 Quality of Life Indicators report notes that Northwest Indiana should aim to provide excellent lifelong learning opportunities. It discusses the shift in region jobs to high-skilled manufacturing and service jobs.

“... residents now need not only a high general level of education, including analytical and communications skills, but also access to specialized training,” the report states.

Educational attainment rates are improving, but progress is still slow. As of 2010, only 13 percent of people in the region over the age of 25 were reported to have a bachelor’s degree, 22 percent completed some college, while a mere 7 percent have graduate or professional degrees.

Dotson realized that she wanted to go back to school while attending her son’s eighth-grade graduation.

“I realized he’s going to graduate, and we had always emphasized going to college, but I hadn’t finished my degree,” said Dotson, who lives in Calumet City. Ill. “My ultimate goal is I want to walk the walk not just talk the talk.”

After careers in music and marketing, Traut, who lives in Valparaiso, was unsure what direction to take. She took one class at a time and “poked along at it,” eventually heading toward psychology. She is now the executive director of Porter County Family Counseling Center and she’s on track to get her certificate in addiction treatment.

Dotson is on pace to graduate in May 2014 — the same time her oldest child will graduate from high school — with a degree in business management. She wants to become a consultant in organizational development, and she is considering applying for a master’s in business administration.

They are just a few of mid-career professionals who juggle family, education, and a changing job market on a daily basis.

Not just college

College attainment rates may be low, but more high school graduates are planning to continue their education. According to the Quality of Life report, 78 percent plan to attend a two- or four-year college, 9 percent are headed to vocational and technical training, and 2 percent plan to enlist in the military.

The cost of college can be a deciding factor in whether a student attends or for how long, so high schools are aiming to prepare students for college-level coursework by pointing students toward opportunities like dual-credit classes. As a result, students don’t waste time and money on remedial coursework once they enroll in college.

The Quality of Life education report also looks at factors that affect academic performance — even before children enter kindergarten. Poverty, lack of access to quality day care and illiteracy among caregivers can hamper students as they enter the classroom; The rate of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch has almost doubled from 2000 to 2010. Those factors are particularly acute in Northwest Indiana’s urban core. High poverty schools typically receive more per-pupil funding via federal Title I dollars, but more spending doesn’t necessarily lead to stronger student performance. The four of the five districts with the highest per-pupil cost had the lowest academic performance.

Finding a place

Northwest Indiana’s colleges and universities provide a variety of experiences for students regardless of age or background. About 40 percent of IUN’s students are 26 years old and older.

David Malik, IU Northwest’s executive vice chancellor of academic affairs, said older students tend to be more focused than their younger classmates.

“They’re motivated and not just doing this as a ritual,” Malik said. “They’ve realized the things they can do and what’s a waste of time. So they’re less distracted.”

Traut’s son is studying business and culinary management at Kendall College in Chicago, so they talk quite about their professors and studying.

“It’s an interesting way to be in the classroom,” Traut said. “They’re your peers and on other hand they could be my kids. Looking at the way we see the world differently is beneficial to me. I’ve learned more about their generation. And I have to sometimes tell them ‘Don’t argue with the professor!’

“There are a lot of kids who are very bright carrying tons of credit hours and excelling at IUN.”

Dotson attends classes while her kids are at school, but she joins them during homework time after school.

“We sit down at the table together with the little ones, crossing between doing my work and helping them,” Dotson said. “They’re probably thinking ‘Oh good, mom has to suffer too.’ ”

Family support is key to Dotson’s success.

“Absolutely, my husband is like my cheerleader,” she said. “I’ll tell him a test I did well on and he’ll give me a high five. If there’s a time when can’t take kids to music lessons, he’ll say, ‘OK fine I’ll take them.’ ”

Malik said some older students are nervous about how they will perform after so many years out of the classroom.

“The first class I taught (in chemistry) I had a 55-year-old woman who decided to go back to get her degree,” Malik said. “She wasn’t sure about how she would do, but she ended up being the highest performer in my class.”

When Dotson was considering what school to attend, she admittedly was concerned about being an older student.

“But I looked around and saw so many other returning adult students, and I talked to some of the student organizations, who reassured me. I knew this is where I was supposed to be,” Dotson said.

IU Northwest and other schools have a built-in support network for students of all ages to succeed. If a student is missing classes, an advisor will try and get to the bottom of what in their life is making getting to class so difficult, whether it’s a financial aid issue, illness or a work conflict.

Financial aid has its limits, so Malik said students have to remain focused if they change majors.

“We’re thinking differently about what can do to better use their time,” Malik said.

Colleges have moved beyond the basic class in a college lecture hall to online and hybrid courses, as well as courses throughout the day.

Malik said the school uses student feedback to craft its course and degree offerings.

“We have nurses who are interested in becoming nurse practitioners, which was just approved one part of the university,” Malik said. “We’re trying to respond to what our students want.”

Traut said she and other students wondered why the school didn’t offer as many graduate counseling courses.

“You’re asking me to go out of state to get the training I need,” Traut said. “But now they offer a master’s in addiction counseling.”

Dotson said it’s easy for learners of all levels to find out what school.

“Take it upon yourself to seek out,” she said. “If there’s anything I can advise, it’s be advocate for yourself and speak up about what you want.”



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