Over the course of the last few weeks and the weeks ahead, hundreds of students will graduate from high schools and institutions of higher education in the tri-state area. We have to wonder, how many of them will choose to live and work and make their homes in this area in the months and years ahead?
Here’s the answer: Not as many as we need.
It’s critically important for local residents to make our area college students and high school graduates feel welcomed, appreciated and inspired to make the greater Dubuque area their home for a lifetime. We need their hands, their hearts and their minds to contribute to our work force and our communities. Creating that welcoming environment is a job for all of us.
Our institutions of higher education — Loras College, Clarke University, University of Dubuque, Northeast Iowa Community College, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Southwest Tech — all work hard to bring new students to campus and to make them feel welcome and included. By and large, they are successful. We know from local survey data that college students in this area say they like their school, their friends, their campus. But some of those students also say that they don’t feel as welcomed in the broader community. They don’t always see themselves reflected in the community. Their “outsider” status seems to separate them. In the worst cases, some students even feel threatened.
For those students, while they might have enjoyed their stint in the Dubuque area as a college student, the community has not become their new home. That’s something we need to work on. College administrators can’t fix it. Neither can city government or economic development officials. Changing the culture of exclusivity to one of inclusivity takes all of us.
It also benefits all of us. Have you been to a place lately with subpar customer service? Waited too long to be helped? Had a phone call to a business go unanswered? That’s because the worker shortage has dramatically impacted nearly every local company. Business owners small and large are seeking new employees. Meanwhile, many of the students who recently walked across the stage to get a diploma just kept walking. They won’t be sticking around to call Dubuque home.
Everyone can have a role in helping to change this. Engage with the young people you see out and about. Be friendly and welcoming. Make connections where you can. Employers have begun to figure out that they can’t wait around for graduates to come knocking on the door for a job. They need to connect with younger students and build a rapport while they’re in school, not just at the end of students’ time here.
The 2020 Census showed Iowa’s population is growing at a rate of 4.8%, well below the national rate of 7.4%. Wisconsin’s growth rate is even smaller than Iowa’s, and Illinois actually lost people.
We cannot afford to keep educating students and losing them to places they feel more comfortable. We need to become that more comfortable place. If we want to build our workforce and our economy, we need to retain the students who go to school here. And if we want to keep them, we must engage them — all of us.