The Journal Gazette
Sunday, December 26, 2021 1:00 am

1st report mainly good for Scholars

21st Century lacks awareness

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Indiana's early college promise program is among the best ways to close educational equity gaps, but only half of eligible students annually enroll, one analysis found.

“We know the transformative power of the program, but our biggest challenge – awareness – remains,” Teresa Lubbers, Indiana commissioner for higher education, said in a statement.

More than 100,000 students – seventh graders to college seniors – are participating in 21st Century Scholars, which offers up to four years' paid tuition at participating Indiana colleges and universities.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education this month detailed the 30-year program's successes – and areas needing improvement – in a first-of-its-kind study, “Indiana's Promise: A Report on the 21st Century Scholars Program.”

The program has had a profound effect since its creation in 1990, Lubbers said, noting more than 45,000 students have earned a degree with the scholarship.

“The 21st Century Scholars program was created to be a promise to students that no matter life's circumstances or obstacles, college can be an option for everyone,” Lubbers said.

“It's not meant to only provide financial aid. It's a scholarship program designed to inspire students to see college as an option from an early age and help prepare them throughout their educational journey.”

Most meet expectations

Students must apply to the scholars program as seventh or eighth graders, and income eligibility guidelines apply. To remain eligible, students must complete various tasks in high school.

Scholars must fulfill the Scholar Pledge, maintain a 2.5 GPA, earn at least a Core 40 diploma and annually complete three activities. For example, they must create a graduation plan as freshmen and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as seniors. The pledge requires students to avoid underage drinking, illegal drugs and criminal activity.

Most – 60% – of high school scholars complete all the program's expectations, the report said.

The effort apparently pays off. With a college-going rate of 88%, scholars not only outpace the statewide average of 59% but also the rates of higher-income students, 64%, and low-income non-scholars, 36%, the report said, citing 2019 data.

When comparing the three most recent years for which data were available – 2017 to 2019 – the study found scholars were more than twice as likely than low-income peers to enroll in college the year after high school.

The pattern held for every race and ethnicity, the report said, noting about 90% of scholars from every ethnic group attended college immediately after high school.

The college-going gap between genders also was slim: 88% of female and 85% of male participants went straight to college, the study found.

Scholars' overall college completion rates jumped from 20% to 37% between 2010 and 2016, the study found, and their overall on-time completion rate was 17 percentage points higher than low-income peers.

“Higher-income graduates are still the most likely to complete college within four years, but the 21st Century Scholars program is helping to close the gap between income levels,” the report said.

Enrolling more students 

Almost 25,000 students completed high school between 2017 and 2019 with their eligibility intact, the study said. But the almost 62,000 additional low-income graduates in that time frame suggests many financially eligible students don't enroll in the program or don't meet its requirements.

In the report's recommendations, the Commission for Higher Education calls for schools, counselors, businesses and community partners to ensure all eligible students enroll.

“By empowering more eligible students across all demographics to enroll in the 21st Century Scholars program, we can positively impact more of Indiana's students,” Katie Jenner, Indiana secretary of education, said in a statement.

Sign-ups usually occur during students' eighth grade year because that's when schools host activities about the transition to high school, said Allison Kuehr, the commission's communications and public relations manager.

“Parents are involved, students are thinking about high school and their plans after graduation, and they know it's their last opportunity to sign up for the 21st Century Scholars program,” she said by email last week.

Generally, the largest surges of enrollment are at the beginning of the sign-up period of students' eighth-grade year, July 1, and at the end, June 30, she said.

This means it's six months into the sign-up period of the 2026 cohort's eighth grade year.

As of Wednesday, Kuehr said, “Allen County currently has the fourth highest enrollment percentage for the class of 2026 in the state with 32.12% of eligible eighth graders enrolled.”

When asked whether the pandemic has affected enrollment, Kuehr said the commission didn't see significant change in enrollments with the 2025 cohort – the eighth-grade class in the 2020-21 school year. That year was the first full academic year affected by COVID-19.

Kuehr noted the 21st Century Scholars program has an appeals process.

“We included a COVID-19-related option for students and families who wish to file an appeal if they missed the enrollment deadline,” she said.

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