Fund scholarship program, keep state’s promise

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, which is roughly double the 12,000 to 14,000 graduates who are usually in the program each year.

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.

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 during the next two years.

State Rep. Woody Burton, R-Whiteland, said it’s essential for state lawmakers to adequately fund 21st Century Scholars 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.

The 21st Century Scholars program has great potential not just for the students and their families but also for the Indiana economy as we produce better-educated members of the workforce. For that reason, the General Assembly should make room in the budget for the increased cost.

But there’s a far more important and far simpler reason for adequately funding the program: We made a promise to these students, so we need to keep it.

At issue

The 21st Century Scholars program needs more state money to cover the expenses of an increased number of eligible students.

Our point

The state needs to fully fund the program not just because it will be good for the economy in the long run but because we need to keep the promise we made to these students.