Program Profile: Indiana 21st Century Scholars

December 14, 2015

By Liz Glaser - Graduate Research Assistant

Fast Facts

Name: Indiana 21st Century Scholars

Students Served70,000+

Universal Program: No – eligibility requirements

Program Age: 25 years

Promise Programs are often locally-oriented to have a big impact in one place. In Indiana, political leaders wanted to have the biggest impact possible, and the Indiana Commission of Higher Education developed a state-wide partnership program 25 years ago: The Indiana 21st Century Scholars. This early-promise scholarship program is designed for low-income Hoosiers across the state. Emily Sellers, the Director of Outreach and Engagement for the program, recently spoke with me after the program released their 25 –year report, “21st Century Scholars: Past, Present, and Future.” The report introduces the history of the program and includes profiles of successful alumni and partners over the past 25 years. Sellers, clearly passionate about this program, caught me up on the history and future of the scholarship.

Because 21st Century Scholars prioritize helping students, they’ve made the eligibility requirements simple and streamlined. Students in 7th or 8th grade are eligible if they are Indiana residents, attend an Indiana public or charter school, and fall under the income threshold, based on 185% of the poverty level, as listed here.  Eligible students sign up to be Scholars, promising to fulfill a few requirements. Once they satisfy the requirements and apply to an approved public or private Indiana institution of higher education, students receive a scholarship that covers full tuition and mandatory fees at their school. Some partnering institutions provide larger scholarships and more robust programming, but every 21st Century Scholar across the state is guaranteed tuition and fee coverage.

Students sign a pledge that promises a GPA of at least 2.5 at high school graduation, participation in the Scholar Success Program, completion of the FAFSA, and to remain a good citizen (meaning no criminal charges, drinking, or drug use) throughout middle and high school. Scholars who sign this pledge are held to this high standard because the Commission wants to prepare students for the rigor of college; ensuring that they can follow the guidelines of the pledge reinforces the values necessary to succeed in any institution of higher education. In 2012, the GPA requirement increased from a 2.0 to a 2.5, a change based on research that students with a 2.5 are “likelier to complete their bachelor’s” than students below that 2.5 cutoff. Interestingly, enrollment of scholars had declined to under 10,000 students between 2010 and 2012, and after the GPA change was enacted, college enrollment steadily increased. Graduates in 2015 were the first class with the 2.5 requirement, and college enrollment for that class was just over 16,000 students. This change came after a 2011 decision to implement the Scholar Success Program, which provides students with activities and goals for each year of high school to prepare them for college. Activities include a scholarship search (to fill the gaps of housing and other costs), creating a graduation plan, visiting a college, taking a college entrance exam, and more. Scholars get to have new academic experiences not otherwise available to low-income students, and this comprehensive program that also helps them stay on track to fulfill the requirements of the pledge so that they can graduate fully prepared to succeed in college.

Scholars join the program in 7th grade, a crucial time for students making decisions about their future. Students are given access to something called “ScholarTrack,” which provides them with activities, preparation, and goal setting that they can begin on their own time. Activities for scholars are not mandatory until high school, but the opportunity to learn more independently of the requirements may encourage middle school students to take initiative on their own. Additionally, because the Indiana Commission of Higher Education must market the scholarship to students in middle school, the conversation about college starts early. Schools, community partners, and families all work together to communicate the importance of college from this early age. Sellers impressed upon me that over these 25 years, the relationships with various partners has strengthened and improved yearly. She says it’s been amazing to witness the “improving network of support” throughout the state, and that these partners are truly invested in “connecting scholars to their communities."

Because this scholarship is one of the oldest of its kind, they’ve been able to make a big impact, and they improve every year. FAFSA completion has increased to 55% with annual improvements. Scholars complete Bachelor's degrees in four years at a rate of 6 percentage points higher than non-Scholar low-income students, and are 5 percentage points under the state average of all students graduating on time. Sellers was proud to acknowledge that because of this program, Hoosiers are “not only going to college – they’re getting it done on time.” The scholarship has bipartisan support in the state legislature, and receives the state appropriation every year, probably due to the steadily increasing rates of success in FAFSA completion, college enrollment, and college completion among low-income students.   Participating postsecondary institutions across the state have introduced partnership programs for the scholars who attend their institutions, which is a transformational change for many of the eligible scholars in Indiana. With supportive alumni, passionate advocates and partners, and a mission that the state government and universities believe in, 21st Century Scholars are on track to succeed for another 25 years.

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