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Report: Half of eligible students don’t enroll in 21st Century Scholars

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About 40% of high school graduates are financially eligible to enroll in a state program that offers up to four years of paid college tuition, but only half of eligible students enroll, according to a report from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (CHE).

The 29-page report is a mostly glowing review of the 21st Century Scholars program. About 88% of scholars go to college, better than the rates for higher-income students (64%), the statewide average (59%) and lower-income students who aren’t scholars (36%).

The on-time college-completion rate for scholars still lags behind the statewide average and higher-income students, but it nearly doubled from 20% to 37% between 2010 and 2016.

Find the full report here.

Why aren’t more students enrolled?

One seemingly intuitive way to boost enrollment would be to make it automatic, but CHE Commissioner Teresa Lubbers said there are a couple of challenges to that.

First, it would go against the spirit of the program. When the Indiana Legislature created the program in 1990, the idea was to make something more than just a scholarship program. Eligible students opt in during their seventh or eighth grade year and commit to upholding certain standards, including maintaining a 2.5 GPA and completing college-readiness tasks throughout high school.

Automatic enrollment would also be logistically difficult because families have to provide household size and annual income and then give consent for schools to check those numbers with revenue records.

ENROLL IN 21ST CENTURY SCHOLARS PROGRAM
The 21st Century Scholars program provides up to four years of paid college tuition at in-state schools. Eligibility is based on income. (Example: The cutoff for a household with four people is $48,470.) Students have to enroll during their seventh or eighth grade year. Learn more and apply at learnmoreindiana.org.

For now, the commission and education officials from the state to local levels rely on marketing efforts to spread awareness of the program.

Other than lack of awareness, there aren’t clear reasons why so few eligible students enroll. Lubbers cited an overall decline in the college-going rate, which dipped below 60% in 2019 for the first time since at least 2009, and said it could also have to do with general skepticism toward higher education.

Other findings from the report

• Students in the 21st Century Scholars program are the only group on track to close Indiana’s college-going achievement gap by 2025 across all races and ethnicities.
• Sixty percent of scholars complete all requirements for the program.
• Black students, despite making up a disproportionate number of the state’s low-income students, are less likely to enroll.
• Scholars are more likely than their low-income peers to graduate on time from a four-year school (37% vs. 20%, respectively, in 2016).

Recommendations

The commission’s report includes a list of wide-ranging recommendations for everyone from lawmakers to local school officials.

Recommendations include making it mandatory for every high school senior to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — scholars are required to do the application — and for schools, counselors, businesses and community partners to make sure more eligible students enroll.

Government feels too far removed from people’s lives, Lubbers said, so messaging could be more effective if it comes from someone you already know and trust.

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

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