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Black students aren’t getting full benefit of 21st Century Scholars program

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There’s good news for low-income students in Indiana who aspire to go to college but don’t have the financial means to pull it off by themselves.

The state’s 21st Century Scholars program is helping them clear that hurdle. From 2012 to 2017, the college-going rate for students in the program was up 8%, according to a recent equity report from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. The report included data up to the 2017 cohort.

For comparison, the college-going rate for low-income students not in the program was down 6%, and the rate for higher income students who didn’t qualify for the program was down 3%.

There’s a caveat to this success, though, one many Black students and families are familiar with: They don’t appear to be reaping the full benefit of the program.

Over the same five-year period, the college-going rate for Black students was down 8%. That’s the exact opposite trend of 21st Century Scholars students.

Of course, not all low-income students are Black, and not all Black students are low-income. But 69% of Black high schoolers were considered low-income in 2017, according to the report. That was the largest percentage among racial groups.

If 21st Century Scholars students are doing well, so should Black students.

21st Century Scholars program at a glance

Students whose families meet the income requirement can sign up for the program in seventh or eighth grade. The deadline to enroll is June 30 of the student’s eighth grade year.

From there, students must complete and track activities in high school that are designed to prepare them for college. The activities include creating a graduation plan, visiting a college campus and filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The student must also graduate with a 2.5 GPA or better and graduate with at least a Core 40 diploma.

As long as the student meets those requirements and is still financially eligible their senior year, the state will pay for up to four years of undergraduate tuition at in-state public schools and a comparable amount for private schools.

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the program.

What the numbers show

Because eligibility is based on income, it’s difficult to know exactly how many students are eligible for the program. But you can get an idea for how many eligible students sign up by using free and reduced lunch as a proxy.

For example, only 47% of students in the 2023 cohort (current freshmen) in Marion County who are eligible for free and reduced lunch are enrolled in the program, according to data from the commission.

That data is not broken down by race, and even where race is applicable, it isn’t always a complete picture. Students and families self-report race on the application, and many decide to leave that out. 

For the 2022 cohort, 12% of scholars are Black, but 40% are unknown, according to data provided by the commission. Excluding unknowns, Black students make up 21% of scholars. For the 2023 cohort, 18% of scholars are Black, and 22% are unknown. Excluding unknowns, Black students make up 23% of scholars.

For comparison, white students make up 30% of scholars in the 2022 cohort and 37% in the 2023 cohort, including students whose race is unknown. Those numbers are 50% and 48%, respectively, when excluding unknowns.

Why aren’t enough Black students signed up?

School counselors and others who try to get middle school students enrolled in the program have varying hypotheses for why Black students aren’t signing up at the rate they should be.

Some parents and guardians aren’t comfortable sharing information such as income because they’re worried it might affect any public assistance they receive, said Flora Jones, postsecondary readiness director for Indianapolis Public Schools.

Bonita Neal, a counselor at Belzer Middle School in Lawrence Township, said some parents aren’t tech-savvy enough to fill out the online application. She tries to get her students, who all have Chromebooks through the school, to fill out as much of the application as they can on their own and then hand it over to parents when they’re needed for income and social security number.

The most cited reason, though, is simply awareness. Not enough families know the program exists.

Officials at the state Commission for Higher Education know this is a problem.

Brittany Collins, postsecondary outreach and career transitions manager at the commission, said the outreach team is specifically looking at how to increase enrollment for Black students.

According to Collins, Black students in the 21st Century Scholars program go to college at the same rate as other scholars, which was 86% in 2017, according to the equity report.

“We know Scholars works for the Black students,” she said, “so knowing that there is a significant population of Black students, how do we make sure that they’re in that overall pipeline?” 

What counselors and officials are doing

The commission has a partnership with Indiana University that includes working with teachers to raise awareness for their students, Collins said. Counselors are usually the ones directly involved with getting students signed up, but teachers see their students five days a week.

Kristen Bostic, a counselor at Westlane Middle School in Washington Township, said the school has a table at open houses and back-to-school nights where parents can sign up their children. The school also sends emails to families and starts calling toward the end of the school year.

“For as much as we try to get it out there, for every 10 applications we hand out, we might only get two back,” she said.

Jennifer Dodson, a counselor at Northview Middle School in Washington Township, said the school does a kickoff during College Go Week at the end of September, and the student news program runs occasional reminders. She said counselors go to classrooms in April to meet one-on-one with students who are likely eligible but haven’t signed up yet.

These are standard practices for schools, but as Collins alluded to, counselors are overworked and can’t dedicate as much time to the 21st Century Scholars program as what would be ideal.

That’s where organizations outside of the school are stepping in to help.

Indy Achieves, an initiative from Mayor Joe Hogsett, processed 509 applications last year, representing just over 9% of the total number of Marion County students who enrolled. The organization is at 400 students this year, according to Esther Woodson, Indy Achieve’s manager of student progress.

“It’s not the fact that their guidance counselor hasn’t gotten out the information,” she said. “But guidance counselors have a lot on their plate, and sometimes that information gets lost in the communication with that parent.”

Indy Achieves is able to process applications because of its partnership with the Commission for Higher Education.

Along with working with schools to figure out how to reach families, the Indianapolis chapter of Indiana Black Expo works with churches and other organizations to raise awareness, said Emil Ekiyor, president of the chapter.

It can be difficult for schools to keep track of contact information because phone numbers and addresses change, Ekiyor said, so it’s helpful to try to reach those families outside of the school setting.

“We just need to connect the dots in our community to make sure our families know,” he said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

A previous version of this story said the Indiana Commission for Higher Education has a partnership with Purdue University that includes teacher professional development. It should have said the commission has a partnership with Indiana University. The mistake was made due to incorrect information given to the Recorder.

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