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Recent data released by the United States Census Bureau shows the population of the state of Illinois dropped by more than 45,100 people between July 1, 2017, and July 1, 2018. This represents the second largest percentage drop in population among any state. Undoubtedly, there are a multitude of reasons for the net loss, including that many families and individuals moved to other states in pursuit of employment and educational opportunities.

Of those pursing a higher education, several patterns emerge. Data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education shows the percentage of high school graduates choosing to attend out-of-state four-year colleges and universities has grown by 57 percent since 2002. According to the latest Illinois Report Card, 32 percent of 2018 Illinois high school graduates enrolled in four-year colleges, both in-state or out-of-state, within 12 months of graduating.

In contrast, 43 percent of 2018 high school graduates chose to attend community college, with 97 percent enrolling in a community college in Illinois.

Why is this noteworthy? Community college students overwhelmingly learn and work in their local communities. A recent study by Emsi and the Wall Street Journal indicates 61 percent of community college graduates stay within 50 miles of their alma mater.

This translates to a trained workforce and transfer ready pool of students for our state and region.

In East Central Illinois, we have an opportunity to strengthen our talent pool from within. Lake Land faculty and staff regularly hear from employers seeking to hire our graduates. Many are willing to pay sign-on bonuses, hire students part-time while they complete their degrees or cover relocation costs -- not to mention starting salaries upwards of $40,000.

How can we work together to share these opportunities with potential students? How can we convince our young high school graduates that investing in two more years of education will provide them with a lifetime of earning potential? What partnerships can we form to ease the financial burden of attending college for these students?

As a community leader, you may be surprised to learn that many of our students want to stay in the area after they graduate, but are not always aware of the local career opportunities. We regularly hear from students who assume they need to relocate to find gainful employment in their field of study.

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Lake Land College Physics Instructor Rakhsha Nasseripour is leading a team to bridge this gap. In 2018, she surveyed our engineering students and discovered 93 percent would like to have an internship at an engineering company, yet only 50 percent were aware of such companies in our area. Additionally, 50 percent stated they would like to remain in this area if they could find an engineering job locally. These findings propelled Nasseripour’s team to create an advisory council of area industry leaders to discuss options for connecting local students to their businesses. Students now take field trips to area businesses, and this spring the advisory council will meet to discuss a new internship program for engineering students.

This is just one example of how Lake Land College faculty and staff partner with business and community leaders to create new opportunities for students and, in turn, support local industry and the economic development of our area.

As we look to the future, I welcome your thoughts and ideas on how we can continue working together to create more of these opportunities so our area residents and high school graduates know an investment in a quality education from Lake Land College will result in a good-paying career right here in east central Illinois.

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