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'Degrees' of optimism

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New Castle High School students served as junior Rotarians Wednesday during that service club’s meeting at the local library auditorium. It was an appropriate day for them, since Ball State University President Geoffrey Mearns was guest speaker and discussed post-secondary education options. Pictured, front row, left to right, are: Tiffany Gwinn, Delaney Dye, Anna Davis, Merissa Hanning and Emily Coy. Middle row: Dr. Matthew Shoemaker, Garrett House, Niah Williamson, Dalton Clouse, Peyton Benematti and Samantha Alspaugh. Back row: NCHS Principal Chris Walker, Will Thurlow, Thomas Witham, Jacob Blevins, Carter Brown and Henry County YMCA Director Chris Williams.
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Ball State University President Geoffrey Mearns speaks to members of the New Castle Rotary Club during a luncheon Wednesday afternoon.
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Ball State University President Geoffrey Mearns speaks to members of the New Castle Rotary Club during a luncheon Wednesday afternoon.

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

With New Castle High School students among those in his audience, Ball State University President Geoffrey Mearns said Wednesday the best way to prepare for a constantly-changing world was earn a college degree.

“A college will prepare you for the changes in the job market that are bound to come,” Mearns said.

Technology continues to make jobs once plentiful disappear, Mearns emphasized. He spoke of a totally automated McDonald’s Restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona and also cited Amazon as a business where high-tech machines have replaced people.

The relentless pace of technology may also erase employees who drive for a living, currently numbering around six million, according to Mearns.

While colleges have been under recent scrutiny because of the increased tuition costs and the mounds of debt graduates carry with them years after completing their studies, Mearns said the degrees earned are still well-worth the time and expense.

“The wage gap continues to multiply between those with high school diplomas and those with college degrees,” he said. “I encourage parents to look not just at the amount of debt, but how much more money their students will be able to earn.”

Means said loan default rates for Ball State students are very low.

“Loan default rates for students who have $10,000 worth of debt are actually higher than those who have $100,000 worth of debt,” Mearns said, “because the students with lower debts usually don’t finish and get their degrees.”

Mearns brings a most interesting background to his role as Ball State University’s 17th president, a job he took last May. He practiced law for more than 15 years and once had a role in the U.S. Department of Justice, where he primarily focused on prosecuting mobsters and terrorists, including one connected with the Oklahoma City bombing case in 1995. He assisted with the prosecution of Terry Nichols, who was convicted along with Timothy McVeigh in the domestic terrorist act that killed 168 people, including 15 children.

HIs experience as a prosecutor has helped Mearns in his current role as BSU president in unique ways.

“Good lawyers have the ability to find solutions and solve problems,” Mearns said. “Being a trial lawyer has taught me how to communicate on my feet.”

What he’s most interested in communicating now is what Ball State University has to offer. The list excites Mearns – both about the university’s status and the future it can offer to East Central Indiana as it celebrates a 100th anniversary this year. Among the points he made to local rotarians included:

• the lowest in-state tuition increase in more than four decades;

• aggressive promotion, including a large sign travelers see at the Indianapolis International Airport;

• New residence hall construction on campus and efforts to make it more “pedestrian friendly” to bicyclists. On May 7, McKinley Avenue, the main thoroughfare through the BSU campus, will be shut down on the north side, due to construction activities. Mearns said a parking garage near Emens Auditorium is slated to be torn down, where an east side mall area with bike paths will replace it.

• A new health professions building is slated to open in the fall of 2019.

• The vast majority – “about 90 percent” – of classes at BSU are taught by full-time faculty members.

• Better use of data to help improve student outcomes. “There’s much less structure when you go to college,” Mearns said. “What happens is that new students can get to October and not realize they are struggling. Grades can get away from them really quickly. We want to focus on how we can find those who are struggling early enough and intervene before November, when it’s usually too late to save the grades.”

As it observes a 100th birthday, BSU has many reasons to celebrate, according to Mearns, who cited the on-time graduation rate has improved 21 percentage points, enrollment is the largest ever and the student population is the most diverse in school history.

A story about junior Rotarians, who also attended Wednesday’s meeting, will be featured in an upcoming edition of The Courier-Times.