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As Indiana’s college-going rate dips, can an underused aid program do more?

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By HELEN RUMMEL Chalkbeat Indiana

Katie Keegan will always be grateful to her mom for pushing her to apply to 21st Century Scholars, a needs-based scholarship and mentoring program. Without it, she says, she might not be studying at Purdue University right now.

Her graduating class, the class of 2020, saw Indiana’s steepest decline in college-going rates in recent memory. That year, only 53% of graduating Indiana high schoolers went straight to college, a steep drop from 58% the previous year. But Keegan said she was able to attend Purdue thanks to the support and mentorship from Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars Program, a state financial aid program that helps many Indiana students from low-income families who qualify.

During high school, Keegan met with advisors through the program who guided her through applications like the federal student aid form known as the FAFSA, and answered her questions about college. And the program ultimately provided her with a scholarship allowing her to reach higher education.
Keegan’s story with the program is a successful one, but there’s evidence that not enough students get a chance to emulate it. While 80% of Keegan’s fellow 21st Century Scholars went on to college in 2020, just over half of the overall graduating class did.

Yet while four in 10 Indiana students are eligible for 21st

Century Scholars, only half of them apply. Such numbers leave some advocates and others wanting better access to programs designed to help students bridge the gap between K-12 and college.

Meanwhile, over the last decade, the share of Indiana’s low-income students going to college — the same population served by the program that helped Keegan — has plunged by 26 percentage points. There have also been declines of 20 percentage points among Black students and 7 percentage points among Hispanic students, all over the last decade.

Rachel Santos, director of education policy at the Indiana Latino Institute, said there are a number of hurdles students and families must cross when planning for college. Automatically enrolling students in programs like 21st Century Scholars would ensure that they are made aware of options and resources that can help them, she said.

The program isn’t a guarantee of success. In 2020, 37% of the 21st Century Scholars graduated from college on time. This lags behind the 44% state average for on-time graduation, but it is considerably higher than the rate for other low-income students of 27%. And the share of students in the program graduating on time has improved in recent years.

The higher education landscape itself, along with the workforce opportunities available to students after high school, has changed in recent years in ways that may be beyond the direct control of schools, students and officials. But Chris Lowery, the commissioner for Indiana’s Commission for Higher Education, said those who attribute declines in college-going rates solely to the pandemic are mistaken. 

“There are clear economic benefits that come with greater levels of education,” Lowery said in a May release. “People with a bachelor’s degree or higher are more likely to be employed and participating in the workforce, and they have significantly higher wages and a greater overall net worth.”

Like Santos, he’s called for auto-enrolling students in 21st Century Scholars.

A (good) domino effect

Eligibility for the program, founded in 1990, is based on a student’s household income, alongside their residency status. But when students start to apply in the seventh and eighth grades, they have to explain why they want to pursue higher education. Once students reach the ninth grade it’s too late for them to apply as the rules currently stand.

Santos believes 21st Century Scholars’ emphasis on mentoring and personalized support is what has proven to be truly successful with the students she has worked with in the past. Not everyone, she said, can have parents who have the time or knowledge to help them through the process of preparing for college.

While the Commission for Higher Education administers the scholarships, state lawmakers, among others, will also need to be on board with the change. Right now, the commission is putting together analyses on the return of investment for the program in hopes of advocating for auto-enrollment.

More than 45,000 students in the state have obtained their degrees with the help from the scholarship. The commission hopes to increase this number considerably, but they understand it will cost more to do so. In Lowery’s opinion, it’s more than worth it.

“We statistically know that with increased educational attainment, on average, we spend a lot less on an individual and his or her loved ones in social spending,” Lowery said.

Chalkbeat Indiana partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Helen Rummel was a summer reporting intern covering education in the Indianapolis area.

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