Blog: High School graduation is here. What are Fort Wayne’s students going to do next?

Northeast Indiana is a quickly growing community. There are excellent places for entertainment, dining, and places to just hang out. As our community grows, so do the number of opportunities, jobs, and careers in our area.

As a 9th-grade student at Bishop Dwenger High School, I’ve been thinking about my future and the decisions facing my peers who just graduated this spring.

Will they stay in Fort Wayne for college or life after college? What are some of the decisions they’re considering or weighing, and what are some of the opportunities in Fort Wayne that might make them want to stay here? Wheeler

Weighing the pros and cons of college

While Northeast Indiana continues to grow, so do job and education opportunities. The high school and college students of today are incredibly passionate. However, while some high school students do still choose to attend college right after high school, that number is decreasing. This trend has been continuing for more than a decade. Nationally, the number of students enrolled at colleges–from community colleges to liberal arts schools decreased by about 11 percent in less than a decade (2011-2019). 

In the fall of 2011, 21 million students enrolled in college. As of fall 2020, this number has decreased to almost 18 million. Our area of Northeast Indiana is no exception to this trend. One study shows that the number of students going to college in Indiana dropped six percent from 2015 to 2019 and that just 66 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college in 2019.

There are multiple reasons for this; One prominent complication I see is the cost of college. College or any type of postsecondary education is usually expensive. Without a scholarship or financial aid, most students cannot afford to attend, and even with those options, students either still cannot afford to attend, or if they can, while paying for college, they build up such immense debt from loans (on average this year almost $30,000 per borrower) that they don’t have the money to pay it off for years. 

Even so, going to college in one's home state could pay off. Three prominent Indiana colleges, Purdue University-West Lafayette, Indiana University-Bloomington, and Ball State University in Muncie have regular tuition rates, ranging from about $25,000 to $40,000. However, their rates for in-state students range from about $10,000-$12,000. There are also popular financial aid programs for Indiana Students to go to public in-state institutions, including the 21st Century Scholars Program. This program awards up to full college scholarships to students from lower-income families as long as they pass all of their high school classes. They sent 88 percent of members to college in the fall of 2019.

If students do end up going to college, some of the most common majors for my generation are in tech and medicine, including nursing, psychology, biology, medicine/pre-medicine, engineering, and computer science. However, the projected most popular major is business.

Indiana has public colleges that specialize in each of these majors, and due to these factors, remaining in the area for college seems more and more appealing.

Exploring the opportunity for entrepreneurship

Speaking of business, there is another post-secondary path for young students in Indiana. As a generation filled with creativity and independence, there are great opportunities for us to consider entrepreneurship. Whether we start businesses online or via farmers’ markets or fairs, living in Northeast Indiana could provide young entrepreneurs with a path to great success. 

As of 2016, about 25 million people in America were starting or running a business, and there is no shortage of success - Ninety percent of new American billionaires started their businesses. One young Fort Wayne entrepreneur, Madeline Phuong, shared her story. She is 17 years old, a rising senior at Homestead High School, and founded a business called A Second Chance. Through this business, she sells her original artwork to benefit organizations, such as Humane Fort Wayne and Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control. She has been running A Second Chance for four years and has spent more than 130 hours producing and selling her products at farmer’s markets and artist fairs, as well as developing her Etsy shop. 

Phuong has raised more than $13,000 for pet vaccine clinics and pet care programs. 

“Being an entrepreneur means capitalizing on your personal strengths and passions in a way that inspires the same in others,” she says. “Entrepreneurship is not a solo endeavor; it may start with a singular idea, but it relies on the belief and support of others to flourish. This is both the beauty and risk of being an entrepreneur. I am simultaneously motivated by the encouragement of those who share my passions for art and animals, and aware that I must find new ways to keep that passion alive in myself and others.” 

A Second Chance is Madeline Phuong's student-run business that sells her original artwork to benefit organizations, such as Humane Fort Wayne and Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control.

And as a young person starting a venture in Fort Wayne, she’s found a network here to support her and her business’s growth.

“Prior to founding A Second Chance, I used to believe that Fort Wayne had few resources and opportunities,” she says. “However, as I have come to know the immense network of entrepreneurs and those supporting young entrepreneurs, I know that to be false. There are many willing to provide guidance and encouragement if you only ask.” 

Looking to the future, Phuong plans to attend a traditional college and then plans to continue with her goal of helping others in future entrepreneurial initiatives and her career.

In Fort Wayne, programs like Junior Achievement of Northeast Indiana (JANI) can assist students in pursuing entrepreneurship. JANI is dedicated to helping students pursue their dreams, gain financial literacy, and discern what to pursue in the future. Through involvement in their programs for students, such as Biz-town, essay contests, and the Student Board, Junior Achievement has helped me, as well as lots of other students to discover what I want to pursue later in life, whether it’s a corporate career or as an entrepreneur. 

Margaret Wheeler, back row and third from the left, is a member of the Student Board for Junior Achievement of Northeast Indiana (JANI). On the back row to the far right is her fellow board member, Madeline Phuong.

During the 2020-2021 school year alone, JANI programs reached almost 120,000 elementary, middle, and high school students. It’s helping me see that Fort Wayne has so many opportunities for people both young and old when it comes to business and building a future here, which brings to mind my next question.

Is Fort Wayne a fit for today’s young graduates?

Through my involvement in JANI and my connections with other local entrepreneurs, I’ve seen that Fort Wayne can be a suitable place to start a career, whether students decide to go to college or to go straight into the workforce. 

As Fort Wayne grows, the number of young people I see running businesses locally seems to be growing, too. I can point to examples at the local farmers market like Samantha of True Kimchi, or young graduates of Believe in A Dream’s Pave the Path program, like Caitlin Dostal who co-owns Deadstock Vintage.

For young graduates who are interested in working for a corporate business, Fort Wayne has options for that, too, whether it’s with Parkview Health, General Motors, Lutheran Health Network, Sweetwater, Vera Bradley, Lincoln Financial Group, or many more. You might even choose a nontraditional career, such as working for the Fort Wayne’s Children’s Zoo, or you could save money by living in Fort Wayne and working remotely for companies elsewhere, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or Disney. 

As remote work became more common during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s interesting to consider how this shift could affect young graduates’ decisions.
In my opinion, the more I have learned about Fort Wayne through my community involvement, the more this community looks increasingly attractive. Our area has beautiful parks, and the places to eat are exceptional. Our neighborhoods, school systems, and many libraries make Fort Wayne a great place to start a family, and our growing Downtown is becoming increasingly walkable. It is filled with small businesses and has ideally located apartments. 

In the process of writing this article, I reached out to a few fellow students, asking them about their plans for the future. One response mirrored my own. This student reported that they are planning to go to a traditional college in Indiana for engineering or business, and they are unsure about their future aside from that. However, despite their uncertainty, they believe they may return to Fort Wayne after college. 

A few years ago, if you would have asked high schoolers how they felt about Fort Wayne, that might not have been the case. But between farmers markets, the parks, Tincaps baseball games, Komets hockey games, riverfront development, and of course, the Johnny Appleseed Festival, it’s getting easier and easier to picture a future here after college.

One student I spoke with pointed out that: “There may not be as many opportunities (in Fort Wayne) in all career fields, particularly in certain specialties.”

And this statement is true. But as more passionate young students and graduates choose to stay in Fort Wayne and apply their skills or launch businesses here, we can change that.

Margaret Wheeler is an incoming 10th-grade student at Fort Wayne's Bishop Dwenger High School in the 2022-2023 school year and a member of the Student Board for Junior Achievement of Northeast Indiana (JANI). This story is part of a series highlighting the faces and stories of economic development in Northeast Indiana, made possible by underwriting from NiSource Charitable Foundation and Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana.