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What is the 21st Century Scholars program and what changes are Indiana lawmakers proposing?

By Violet Comber-Wilen, IPB News | Published on in Economy, Education, Government
Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program provides up to 100 percent tuition for public state colleges and part of the tuition at private and independent colleges. (Sakeeb Sabakka/Flickr)

Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program provides up to 100 percent tuition for public state colleges and part of the tuition at private and independent colleges. The 32-year-old program has been credited with helping low-income students to attend and graduate from college. More than 45,000 students in the program earned a degree since 1990.

However, a report on the program found that about half of the eligible students apply for 21st Century Scholars. Lawmakers in both parties filed bills in this legislative session to increase the number of students who enroll.

A bipartisan bill, HB 1449, that passed out of the full House would automatically enroll qualifying low-income students by the end of eighth grade.

Educators say the legislation, if passed into law, would benefit students across the state.

Roberto Leal is a 21st Century Scholar recruiter in the South Bend school system and a program alum.

“I don’t think I would have graduated from high school, to be honest, if it wasn’t for this program,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t have you know, ventured out to college.”

Leal said he supports the automatic enrollment portion of the legislation because families often “fall through the cracks” when it comes to announcements about these programs or they feel uncomfortable asking questions about applying.

“I think if they are enrolled in the 21st Century Scholar program, and they get that assistance, or they see that there are people that are willing to put forth some effort and shaping their educational experience, they see that and they appreciate it,” Leal said.

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How it works
Currently, eligible Hoosier students must apply for the 21st Century Scholarship Program by June 30 of the end of their eighth-grade year.

Students are required to maintain a 2.5 GPA, earn at least a Core 40 high school diploma, and complete activities like visiting a college campus and filing the Free Application for Federal State Aid (FAFSA).

HB 1449 would not change the requirements of the program, which also includes a pledge by the student to stay out of trouble, such as avoiding drugs and alcohol and the juvenile justice system.

Jenny Scott, the counseling director at Shakamak Junior-Senior High School in Jasonville, pushes eligible students and families to apply for the program. But, she still struggles to get the message through to all parents.

“I’m one counselor, and there’s only so much I can do in a day,” Scott said. “And I know how much time I spend going after students that I know will qualify and trying to get that form back and get their parents to apply.”

Scott said parents have a host of reasons for not filling out this paperwork – including language barriers, mental health concerns, or general lack of understanding.

Scott said the automatic enrollment would allow counselors like herself time to focus on other things – such as college exploration for students and mental health.

She said she still sees the program as a game changer, especially for those children growing up in generational poverty.

“I see it as a really positive program in that it’s going to make a difference, not just today, not just tomorrow, but for some of those kids in the future, they maybe won’t grow up in poverty and their children won’t grow up in poverty,” she said. “It just really opens up that door and gives them a chance, so why would we not want to do that?”

Sen. Eddie Melton (D-Gary), who authored a similar bill that did not pass, said he missed the opportunity to apply for the program as a child and does not want other students to make the same mistake.

“We qualified,” he said. “I lived in a single-parent household at the time, my mother worked a 12-hour shift, and I just forgot to give my mother that piece of information. It’s like a thorn in my side.”

Melton emphasized it was difficult to have an early cutoff date for the program. He said as an eighth-grader, the piece of paper he needed his mother to sign to enroll him in the program got lost and he did not realize the importance it carried.

HB 1449 will be heard in front of the Senate education committee on Wednesday.

Violet is our daily news reporter. Contact her at vcomberwilen@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @ComberWilen.