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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

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Today, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds make up an increasing share of all students interested in pursuing post-secondary learning opportunities. Without support, they are the least likely to go to college, achieve academic success while enrolled and graduate on time or complete their degree at all.

There are two key programs that help address the need today — Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The 21st Century Scholars program provides up to four years of undergraduate tuition at participating colleges and universities to income-eligible Indiana students.

Enrollment in 21st Century Scholars — between the time your child enters seventh grade and before the end of their eighth grade year — provides a wealth of resources and step-by-step guidance to support student success to and through college. One such step is completing the FAFSA application. FAFSA helps current and prospective college students gain eligibility for student financial aid at both in- and out-of-state higher education institutions and provides access to numerous scholarships and grants. Students pursuing higher education can complete FAFSA anytime between October and June annually. 

These programs are highly effective at promoting postsecondary learning. Students who successfully complete FAFSA are almost 50% more likely to enroll in college. According to data from Indiana’s Commission for Higher Education, 88% of scholars go to college, whereas only 35% of low-income, non-scholars do so.

Scholars also graduate from college at higher rates. 21st Century Scholars are the only group on track to close Indiana’s college-going achievement gaps by 2025.

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

Although program success rates are high, gaps exist. The challenge and opportunity today are that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds do not appear to be equitably accessing these programs. Only 51% of eligible students in Marion County were enrolled in 21st Century Scholars in 2019, according to a recent report conducted by Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. Where we have racial and ethnic data, only 21% of the graduating scholars cohort of 2022 identified as Black. Similar disparities hold true with FAFSA — only 41.5% of Marion County students completed the application. 

If we want our students to reach key educational milestones and be on the path to economic mobility, we must take meaningful effort to close these gaps now and in the future. The gap is clear, and we, as a community, need to be focused here. 

Fortunately, some schools like Victory College Prep are providing support to ensure all students are accessing every available financial resource for their postsecondary education. And while schools should be responsible for connecting their students to 21st Century Scholars and FAFSA, if you are prepared with the right questions, you can proactively advocate for your child, as well. For example, asking your school leader or guidance counselor questions like, “What resources are out there to pay for higher education?” and “How does my family’s income affect my child’s financial aid and scholarship opportunities?” You can also directly access many resources online via organizations focused on these efforts, such as the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (CHE), Indy Achieves, and the Center for Leadership Development (CLD), who are leading in this effort. 

By 2030, Teach For America aims to double the number of students reaching educational milestones, indicating they are on a path to economic mobility and a future filled with possibility. As a community, we can work together to ensure that our students have the tools they need to reach the dreams they have set for themselves. Whether it is connecting a student directly to the resources or assisting them with an application, utilizing both 21st Century Scholars and FAFSA can help put a student on a surer path to start and complete postsecondary learning, no matter their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background. 

Amar Patel serves as executive director at Teach For America Indianapolis, an education nonprofit organization that recruits, supports and develops diverse, equity-minded leaders that drive change in our education system, starting in the classroom. Teach For America is working toward increasing student achievement in Indianapolis while advocating for policies and practices that support family and student success.

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