College program coffers run low

Thousands of Indiana students who will graduate from high school this year are counting on the state to pay for their tuition when they start college in the fall.

But state lawmakers will have to increase spending for Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program in order to fulfill that promise.

About 27,000 Indiana seniors from this year’s graduating class are enrolled in the 21st Century Scholars program, which is roughly double the 12,000 to 14,000 graduates who are usually in the program each year.

Locally, principals and guidance counselors have been touting the program to students and parents as a way to help families pay for college, but they also are concerned about qualified students who aren’t signing up. In 2011, the most recent numbers available, nearly a third of Johnson County’s 1,688 graduates met the program’s income requirements, but less than 8 percent of qualifying students signed up.

Students sign up for the 21st Century Scholars program in seventh or eighth grade if they meet income requirements. The annual income for a family of four can’t exceed $45,568. In high school, students have to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA, complete college preparation activities and stay out of legal trouble. Students also have to earn a total of 30 credits per year while they’re in college to continue receiving money for tuition.

If students remain in the program through graduation, then the state has agreed to cover the cost of four years of tuition at an in-state public college or the equivalent amount at a private college. At Indiana University in Bloomington, that’s more than $10,000 per year.

“That’s going to come with a pretty significant price tag in terms of the scholarships themselves,” Indiana Commission for Higher Education associate commissioner Jason Bearce said.

The total cost of the program this year is about $149 million, up roughly $27 million from last year. The total cost is expected to peak at $174 million in 2016, when more students who joined the program during the recession graduate, Bearce said. After that, the cost of the program will slowly start to fall, as fewer families qualified for the program because the economy improved, he said.

But more students across Indiana started signing up for the program in 2008, when the economy crashed. There was also a short window where students could sign up for the program in sixth grade, one year earlier than they can now. Those two factors are why so many students qualify for the program now, Bearce said.

“We had a period of time where the grade levels in which students could sign up were bigger. We also had more needy students, more needy families,” Bearce said.

To ensure there’s enough money for graduates who meet all of the program’s requirements, state lawmakers will need to increase spending for the program by about $90 million over the next two years, Bearce said.

State Rep. Woody Burton, R-Whiteland, said state lawmakers won’t know how much money is available for the program until they see an updated revenue forecast and finalize the budget.

But it’s essential for state lawmakers to adequately fund 21st Century Scholars, he said, because the program is helping prepare students for their futures. If students who enroll in the program complete college and get higher-paying jobs, they’ll be able to plug money they earn back into Indiana’s economy, he added.

“That is such a strong program,” Burton said. “I have to believe we’re going to fund it. If not that (exact) amount, at least a good amount.”

At a glance

Here’s a look at the 21st Century Scholars program:

What it is: A scholarship program meant to ensure all Indiana students have the chance to attend college

Qualifications: Students sign up in seventh or eighth grade. Students qualify if they meet income requirements similar to free and reduced-price lunch guidelines; for a family of four, that’s an annual income of $43,568. Students also have to maintain a 2.5 GPA and stay out of legal trouble

What students get if they complete the program: Up to four years of tuition at an in-state public college, or the equivalent amount at a private college