Initiative hopes to increase education level, workforce in Indiana

Rachel Christian

The university is leading an initiative to strengthen industry along the Innovation Corridor, a 67-mile stretch of I-69 that connects Evansville to the Naval Surface Warfare Center – Crane Division.

The project, which began about two years ago, is much bigger than USI, and includes over 100 government leaders, as well as business, healthcare and education representatives.

The Innovation Corridor is one of six initiatives the university created last year after receiving a $3 million grant from the Lilly Endowment fund. The goal of the grant is to increase job growth, promote industry and decrease brain drain, a phenomenon where college grads leave the state shortly after earning their diploma.

“Brain drain can be hard on a state’s economy,” Provost Ron Rochon said. “The students who leave take with them tax dollars and a lot of intellectual potential that could benefit Indiana.”

The state is second in the country for attracting out of state students, but only a third of those students stay in-state after graduation, said Scott Gordon, dean of the Pott College of Science, Engineering and Education and co-chair of the Lilly grant programs at USI.

Gordon also said Indiana is in 42nd place for number of residents with a college degree.

The Innovation Corridor has six task forces, including one that’s focused on reducing brain drain.

Michael Thissen, the Innovation Corridor manager, said USI was an obvious leader for the project because of its already strong relationship with Crane.

The university began strengthening the relationship in 2003 during the first round of Lilly grant funding – there have been three. The university was awarded $1 million and used it to increase internship opportunities with Crane while bolstering the engineering program itself, which was only a year old at the time.

“The purpose of the Innovation Corridor is to strengthen the higher education pipe line and improve the opportunities around this area,” Thissen said.

He said the goal of the Innovation Corridor is to set the ground work for public and private sector industries that might be interested in investing in the area. Projects like these are focused on the long term, he said, and even in its second year, the project is “still very much laying the foundation.”

USI will host the Celebration of Innovation Nov. 13 in Huntington. The event will highlight the progress of the project and discuss how to move the corridor forward.

Thissen said the event will share with the public what the six task forces have been working on and what progress they’ve made in an interactive environment.

“These aren’t going to be boring presentations and lectures,” Thissen said. “It’s going to be hands-on, encouraging input and trying to figure out how we can strengthen these relationships.”

The ultimate goal, which is shared by many organizations across Indiana, is for 60 percent of Hoosiers to have a college degree or some form of specialized training by 2025.

Currently, that figure is about half that.

“It’s a bit of a lofty goal,” Thissen said. “But it’s definitely not unattainable, especially with many other communities and organizations setting similar goals.”