By TAMI SILVERMAN, guest columnist
Indiana’s highly acclaimed Evan Bayh 21st Century Scholars Program has a problem: vast numbers of eligible low-income students are struggling to complete new requirements, putting them at risk of losing their valuable scholarships.
Seventy-seven percent of scholars in the Class of 2017 at Brown County High School and 75 percent statewide may not receive the funding they need to pursue a potentially life-changing education after high school.
With a spring 2017 compliance deadline looming, we must coordinate efforts among state and local agencies, parents and schools to reach our most at-risk students.
In the past 25 years, the 21st Century Scholars program has helped at least 30,000 low-income students earn a college degree.
The Indiana Commission for Higher Education reports that more than 110,000 students are currently enrolled in the program.
In 2013, ICHE introduced the Scholar Success Program, which includes activities that help prepare students for college, such as visiting colleges and getting workplace experience.
The Class of 2017 is the first group required to complete these activities to earn their scholarships. Yet in May, the commission discovered only 8 percent of eligible students were on track to complete the activities.
There is some good news: through outreach efforts that often included partners in higher education, school corporations and community organizations, ICHE helped triple the number of on-track students in less than two months.
Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers is encouraged by the increase, but says, “With much work remaining to ensure Indiana’s Scholars meet all requirements, we will continue our outreach and reporting efforts to keep this positive momentum going as we begin a new school year.”
Unfortunately, this means three-quarters of our state’s high-potential, low-income students remain at risk of losing their scholarship.
Rates vary greatly between counties, yet only Benton County is considered low risk for students not completing the program. Brown County is among 86 counties ICHE has placed in the high risk category. The remaining counties are labeled as medium risk.
Given the fast-approaching deadline, how can we ensure that every eligible student has the necessary information and support to complete the program?
Schools are the obvious choice for outreach, and Lubbers has asked principals to prioritize assisting students with completing the requirements.
Meetings with the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents and the Indiana Association of School Principals included information about grants available to help schools offset costs of increased awareness and coaching. According to Lubbers, both associations were highly supportive, stating, “This is a slam dunk. We’re gonna get this done.”
Youth-serving organizations also have been long-standing partners of the 21st Century Scholars program. Programs such as Project Leadership have targeted efforts at not only enrolling seventh- and eighth-graders but also assisting the students through high school and beyond.
Scholar Success Labs, which provide access to computer labs and program assistance, are another way community organizations can work with schools to increase enrollment and activity completion. Tammy Pearson, Project Leadership’s director, states, “This is an effort that communities can easily employ within their county’s boundaries and partnerships.”
She points to a collaboration with a Muncie high school that, thanks to the combined efforts of school personnel and volunteers, helped 87 percent of eligible students enroll in and start some activities.
Finally, families and the students themselves must be encouraged to increase activity completion rates.
For many of Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars, the obstacles to degree completion are high. These students are more likely to be the first in their family to go to college and to be raised in single-parent households.
Direct mail, one-to-one mentoring and access to online tools aim to assist students and families through the program.
From the start, the 21st Century Scholars program has transformed the lives of individuals and families, and examples of resounding student achievement abound.
It will take coordinated, intentional efforts to close the gap on the new Scholar Success requirements. The work must happen quickly and throughout the state.
Yet the potential payoff is enormous. By ensuring that each eligible student moves into compliance, we can not only improve the individual economic opportunities of those students but also increase the quality of life for all Hoosiers.
Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI.