County takes big step forward in education goals

COLUMBIA CITY — The road to a college education just got a little bit easier for some Whitley County students thanks to a partnership announced Wednesday between the Whitley County Community Foundation and the Questa Foundation for Education.The Questa Foundation, based in Fort Wayne, announced that it is expanding its Questa Scholars Program into Whitley, DeKalb, Huntington and Kosciusko counties, and hopes to expand to the rest of northeast Indiana by 2013.The expansion is made possible by partnerships created between local community foundations and Questa Foundation and a commitment of more than $600,000 in new funding from the partnering foundations.WCCF Executive Director September McConnell, in remarks made at Wednesday’s announcement, said the local community foundation’s board of directors mandated that one-third of the WCCF’s unrestricted grant dollars be earmarked to address “the essential need for Whitley County residents to attain post-secondary education.” Through its alignment with the Questa Scholars Program, and their commitment to the Northeast Indiana College Attainment and Talent Retention Initiative, the dual goal of both Questa and the WCCF is to boost college degree attainment rates and keep the resulting talent in the region. Currently, in the 11-county northeast Indiana region, 26.5 percent of young adults attain college. The goal is to boost that to 60 percent by 2025.The Questa Scholars Program also focuses on talent retention — keeping college graduates in northeast Indiana. The scholars program offers college debt forgiveness to students who remain in or return to northeast Indiana after college and become contributing members of the area’s workforce. Up to 50 percent of their Questa Scholars loan may be forgiven if a student qualifies. Students must graduate with a 2.75 GPA and choose to live and work in northeast Indiana for at least five years after graduation.Questa Scholars may borrow $20,000 over four years of college. The Questa Scholars Program is really aimed at middle-class students, McConnell said, noting these students graduate with an average college loan debt of $20,000 and, through the combination of scholarship loans and debt forgiveness, college cost becomes much more manageable.“We’re trying to offset the burden on middle-class students,” she said. The goals of the Questa Scholars Program fits the mission of WhitleyForward.“WhitleyForward was created to raise awareness of the need for obtaining degrees or advanced certifications,” McConnell said. “Obviously, the long-term goal is to retain the talent we develop locally and help our students achieve their education goals with minimal financial burden.”“Today’s announcement is really targeted to our region’s young people — northeast Indiana’s emerging workforce,” said Christina K. Smith, executive director for the Questa Foundation for Education. “We say to you ‘Good is no longer good enough. We are no longer content to remain 46 out of 50 states in college attainment rates. We are no longer content to have only a quarter of our population achieve the dream and promise of a college degree. “‘We are no longer willing to see our region be a net exporter of talent and defined by declining per capita income and a brain drain. And, we are no longer willing to see graduates from our region leave college with the 13th highest debt load in the nation.’”Smith went on to say that through the expansion of Questa Foundation for Education and the Scholars Program, the bar of expectation has been raised and the door of opportunity opened wide for young adults. “For our community foundation, it is a sound investment in Whitley County’s future,” McConnell said. “We believe that with continued visioning, the Questa Scholars Program can be transformational — not only to Whitley County, but to our region. This is not just about scholarships — it’s about community development and we are grateful for the opportunity to work together.”The Questa Scholars Program also got a boost from Steel Dynamics, Inc. which committed a $229,000 grant to Questa Foundation to provide matching grant funds for local community foundations along with program support funding to continue Questa’s regional expansion.