Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars Program Faces Crisis as Students Fall Off-track

July 28, 2016

By Liz Glaser, Graduate Research Assistant (updated August 2, 2016)

In December, Graduate Research Assistant Liz Glaser profiled a program in Indiana that works statewide to increase college access among low-income students. With 21st Century Scholars, middle school students signed a commitment to complete high school, earn good grades, and follow a few simple requirements so they can earn college tuition. Students must now complete a dozen tasks before receiving their tuition assistance, and keep higher grades. While students have all four years of high school to complete these requirements, many are falling behind in the program.

Chelsea Schneider of The Indianapolis Star highlighted in June that the challenges with this cohort of 21st Century Scholars, many of whom are failing to meet the requirements. Roughly 12,000 to 15,000 students enter college each year as 21st Century Scholars aid recipients, but of those in the Class of 2017, more than 14,000  about 80 percent  were not on track last month to graduate and receive tuition assistance at the end of their junior year. In response, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education is reaching out to schools and the community to help publicize what students need to do to remain eligible. As of July 25, two months after the original news article, the percentage of students on track grew from 20% to 26%, according to ICHE.

The 21st Century Scholars program was created in the 1990s, and has been through a series of changes over the years, but the most recent shifts were directly related to program rigor. Born from legislation in 2011, the requirements that 2017 seniors must meet were designed to increase the likelihood that 21st Century Scholars students would succeed in their postsecondary path, and built upon what was already in place. 

The GPA requirement rose from 2.0 to 2.5, partially due to research showing that students with a 2.5 or higher in school were more likely to complete college. Students must also take 30 credit hours during high school in order to receive the full scholarship amount. Finally, students must complete the Scholar Success Program, a series of tasks and programs that run from the pledge-signing through high school graduation. They include college visits, graduation plans, participating in service activities, filling out college applications and more. Students track their individual achievements in the Scholar Success Program through an online portal, which aims to increase students' independence, letting them update their progress at their own pace and on their own time.

Many lawmakers were concerned that participants in the scholars program weren’t completing college on time, so the changes aimed to prepare students in high school for the rigors of postsecondary education. Historically, changes in college completion rates have been incremental, and the legislation's goal was to increase the speed of progress while having a broad impact. According to the Star article, only about 20 percent of scholarship recipients were completing college on time before the new requirements took effect. 

Early data show those students who manage to receive the scholarship are completing more credits, which is early evidence that the changes are achieving their stated goal. Lawmakers may be right that these changes will increase scholarship recipients success, but if the rate of students not on track to qualify for the scholarship continues, the number of students which the scholarship program serves will decrease tremendously.

Students must track their requirements through the program's web portal, which was intended to empower high school students through technology and self-monitoring. However, program administrators are concerned that one reason so many students are behind is because they haven’t taken the time to upload their progress to the portal. This means that even if students are completing program requirements and are on track, there is no record of that progress, which will disqualify them for the scholarship. As school leaders have noticed the shrinking numbers, “officials are planning an immediate effort to help seniors who haven’t logged on to the state website once they return from summer break.” Engaging with students and working with them to update their progress on the website should remind participants to be mindful of their responsibility for the program.

The robust new requirements are certainly a big change; prior to the invention of the Scholar Success Program, students had to graduate with a 2.0, stay out of legal trouble, apply for financial aid and demonstrate financial aid. With an additional 8 requirements, plus a GPA bump, the scholarship has become much more of a challenge to achieve.

The change is inspired by a long-term goal, but right now the program must address the 74% percent of high school students who are not on track to qualify for the program. This gap could be a result of the program changes, or it could merely be a reflection of students who haven’t updated their progress. Whatever the reason, the program should address this problem soon. A universal program like the 21st Century Scholars has a far-reaching impact as long as students can actually receive the benefit of the scholarship. Even as programs adapt and increase rigor, it’s important to focus on the well-being and success of the student.

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