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March 2023
The impact of a gap year on our community’s future

The future of our region depends on our ability to attract and train a highly skilled workforce and sustain progressive, family-friendly communities. Our success depends on our young adults seeking out education and training to fill the labor shortages we are experiencing in critical areas such as healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and information technology, to name a few.

 However, only half of the high school students in our area are going to college or attending a post-secondary institution, according to the average of data collected during the past four years from the National Student Clearinghouse.

 As we moved through the pandemic, society was accepting of the fact that young adults needed a gap year and predicted they would enroll in college shortly thereafter. However, this is not coming to fruition and there is growing concern about what this means for our country’s future.

 National studies predict slower economic growth, labor shortages, poor health and a lower tax base as potential outcomes of a society with lower educational attainment. Locally, we could feel the impact directly as those with only a high school diploma pay 31% less in local, state and federal taxes than people with associate degrees, according to a recent study by College Board.

 Our interest in this data goes beyond a desire to boost Lake Land’s enrollment. Our success is directly linked to the success of the communities we serve. We are committed to providing options for residents to obtain an education and training beyond high school so they can earn life-sustaining wages, support their families and have the cushion of benefits and paid time off. We are committed to creating a highly-skilled workforce to fuel economic growth.

 As part of our Strategic Plan, we set out to talk directly to the high school students in our district to identify potential roadblocks or barriers to attending college. This past fall, faculty and staff facilitated 24 focus groups within four in-district high schools and four Pathways programs. They talked with 223 high school students who shared their thoughts and experiences related to planning for the future. Of that total, 143 were planning to attend college, while 80 were not.

 The data revealed several themes that mirrored national studies. Students are concerned about cost and the value of college. One student said, “Do I even want to go to college and then waste the time and money? When you do it, and then get a degree for it, and then not ever really need it.”

 They are anxious about the future and have a fear of the unknown. Some in the group who were not planning to attend college reported having negative feelings related to school in general.

 In both groups, students did not realize that Lake Land College offers trade programs such as welding, automotive and construction. They identified additional barriers to higher education such as reliable transportation, safety, gas, housing and feeling unprepared for college.

 While they reported parents as being the most influential persons in their decision to attend college, they were definitely impacted by other family members, siblings, educators, friends, social media influencers, teachers, counselors and coaches.

 The study provides valuable information for Lake Land College and our communities to create a future in which our young people see the value in education and training after high school. Kudos to creative programs such as Leaders Innovating for Tomorrow (LIFT) in Mattoon and the Effingham Regional Career Academy (ERCA) in Effingham, which focus on pathways for high school students to explore careers and develop foundational skills in critical workforce sectors for our region. These types of collaborative partnerships between public and private entities are critical to the future success of our communities. How can we work together to continue breaking down barriers and creating opportunities for the youth in our area to thrive?  

Dr. Josh Bullock
Lake Land College President