(Anderson) Herald Bulletin
At the end of their eighth-grade year, eligible students in Madison County can register for the state of Indiana’s needs-based 21st Century Scholars program, which can eventually provide free tuition for four years of college at a state university or comparable tuition coverage at a private school.
It’s an excellent concept to enable kids who otherwise couldn’t afford a college education (or would have to go deep into debt) to get a four-year degree, which could then lead to a professional career and financial stability.
Without an advanced education, many of these people would end up flipping burgers or washing cars. Some would be unemployed. Sadly, some would end up in prison.
So, the 21st Century Scholars program has the capacity to change thousands of lives each year in Indiana as its beneficiaries get their college degrees. In turn, the money saved by the state on social assistance and welfare programs would, hypothetically, end up back in the pockets of taxpayers.
Sadly again, the 21st Century Scholar program is falling woefully short.
Only 26 percent of eligible high school students statewide were on track by July 25 to secure their scholarship. That means three out of every four potential 21st Century Scholars were leaving four years of college tuition — about $40,000 at Indiana University, for example — on the table and just walking away toward a life of probable wasted potential.
The numbers in Madison County are particularly distressing. Among six local school districts that responded to The Herald Bulletin’s request for statistics, only 124 of 725 eligible members of the class of 2019 were enrolled in the 21st Century Scholars program. That’s just 17 percent.
While many factors — such as a cultural de-emphasis on education, a tradition of children in a family not going to college, discomfort sharing personal financial information, or lack of access to a computer and Internet service to register — can discourage enrollment in the 21st Century Scholars program, new state regulations guiding the application and enrollment process have made it more difficult to participate.
The graduating class of 2017 will be the first required to complete a set of 12 application steps. The steps include creating a graduation plan, making at least one college campus visit, doing community service, gaining workplace experience, taking a career interest assessment, completing a college entrance exam and searching for additional scholarships.
These seem like important steps for college preparation. Yet when the student has limited financial resources, isn’t comfortable on a college campus and doesn’t have a car to drive to and from a job, such requirements become obstacles. And the state shouldn’t be erecting obstacles to higher education.
In addition, students must maintain a high school GPA of 2.5 or higher and to earn a Core 40 graduation diploma. Again, these seem like reasonable expectations, until you consider late-blooming students, those who have little support at home and others who might have to work to support their families.
A fresh approach is needed, with an eye on getting the vast majority of eligible students into and through college.
Perhaps most importantly, the state should review and revise the application and enrollment process to make it less onerous. And then, schools should be given resources to provide more support to applicants, and also to introduce the program to parents of students at a younger age, so that they become comfortable with the idea and set a goal of gaining a college education.
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