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House Bill could automatically enroll eligible students into 21st Century Scholars program

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House Bill 1449 is currently making its rounds in the Indiana Statehouse. The bipartisan Bill would automatically enroll eligible students into the 21st Century Scholars program.
The program helps aid students financially with higher education through paying up to 100% of tuition for public colleges and part of the tuition for private and independent colleges in the state.

The Bill was authored by Democratic Rep. Earl Harris Jr. and targets lower-income students.

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“I’m a strong proponent of young people continuing their education post high school. Doesn’t matter if it’s a certificate, two-year degree, or a four-year bachelor’s degree. I advise people to get something because it will help you in terms of career advancement down the line,” said Harris.

Last year he spoke to the newly appointed commissioner for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (CHE), Chris Lowery about the initial idea of automatic enrollment.
Both men have backgrounds in education and discussed the 21st Century Scholars program.

“I started in the role about 11 months ago, not quite a year. And in June, we published the annual readiness report. When I saw what the numbers were with steep declines in the college going rate, it really alarmed me,” said Commissioner Lowery.

He said it wasn’t just because of the pandemic either.

Numbers have been on the decline over the past decade.

Only 48% of students who were eligible enrolled according to their latest readiness report.
Over 80% of 21st Century Scholars go to college.

Only 30% of their peers who did not join the program were eligible to go to college.
21st Century Scholars complete college 10% higher than their low-income peers.

Enrollment eligibility starts for grades 7 and 8 for Indiana public schools and accredited nonpublic schools.

“So, I’m in a new role. I started asking new questions. If we could identify those kids by some means, why wouldn’t we just automatically enroll them? Legislators said they wanted to help with that. The governor said he’d get behind that,” said Lowery.

CHE set out to reverse the trend.

According to the bill, in cooperation with the Indiana Department of Education, CHE would identify students across the state who qualify for the program. They would then notify parents, guardians, or emancipated student minors of eligibility.

Students can also opt out of the program at any time.

“People will come to us and say ‘Hey, my kid’s going to college. They’re in high school. Do you have any suggestions on how they can pay for college?’ One of things I always ask is if they’re a 21st Century Scholar and almost 100% of the time the parent looks at me and goes, ‘What’s that?’” said Harris.

He said eligible students fall through the cracks because they don’t even know the program exists and they’re missing out on something that would help pay for college.
Regardless of automatic enrollment, Harris said informing families is still a vital part of the program’s success.

Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program has been around since 1990.
CHE was at the state fair last year with their 21st Century Scholars booth. Commissioner Lowery said so many Hoosiers walked by saying how they were grateful for the program growing up.

“One man almost had tears when he said how was a 21st Century Scholar. He was the first person in his family to go to college. He’s an engineer now, and he pointed to his kids and said they’re going to go to college because of this too,” said Lowery.

A part of their outreach is through community and faith-based organization along with schools to help instill the value of higher education.

Last year for the Indianapolis School District, there were a total of 393 8th graders who applied which amounts to 27.8% of 8th graders. The district said the program is a wonderful opportunity for so many students.

This year so far, nearly one-fourth, which is 24% of IPS students have applied after three weeks of spreading the news to families about the program. The goal is to have 60% of eligible students apply after eight weeks.

“Our partnership with the Indiana Commission of Higher Education and with Indy Achieves will continue. I can see the role of IPS staff becoming more of a mentor/coaching support because once a 21st Century Scholar enters high school, they have requirements each year to maintain their status as a scholar.” – Marc Ransford with the IPS District

House Bill 1449 passed out of the House already and is now on the senate side of the statehouse.

If passed fully it will take effect in the summer with fall 2023 eligible students becoming automatically enrolled.

Contact senior staff writer Jade Jackson at 317-607-5792. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON.  

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