Twenty-two years ago, Indiana made a big promise to low-income students in middle school: Stay out of trouble, don’t do drugs, get decent grades and in return you’ll get a full scholarship to any public or private college in the state.

It was hailed as a visionary effort to raise the aspirations of students who may have never dreamed of a university education.

But it’s a promise the state can no longer afford to make — at least not in the open-ended way it’s been made in the past.

Over the last year, significant changes have been made to the 21st Century Scholars program in an effort to rein in its fast-rising costs and boost the success rates of the program’s students who were getting into college in droves, but failing to get out with a degree.

Going forward, students will have to meet new academic and financial requirements and they’re no longer given the guarantee that all their tuition will be picked up by the state.

Among the triggers that have led to the changes: The amount of state dollars spent on the program last year, $46.5 million, was double what was spent just four years ago, and the state had to pull money out of other needs-based scholarship programs to cover the gap.

And demand is only increasing: There are now more than 100,000 students enrolled in the program.

“Short of doing something like this, you really do jeopardize the program,” said state Higher Education Commissioner Teresa Lubbers. “It was getting to the point where it was consuming almost all of the state’s student financial aid.”

The Indiana General Assembly approved the changes in 2011, but some are now just going into effect.

Going forward, 21st Century Scholar students will be required to keep a 2.5 grade point average, rather than the 2.0 GPA as required in the past. High school students on track to graduate in 2014 will also be expected to raise their GPA to a 2.5 by the time they graduate.

Students who enroll in college this fall will also be required to take part in an “academic success” program designed to keep better track of how well they’re faring in college and to get them more help when needed.

Those changes were triggered by the program’s college graduation rates. Only about 13 percent of 21st Century Scholars graduate from college on time. Only about 31 percent of the program’s students graduate within six years.

“It’s not enough to get students into college and to pay their way if they don’t graduate,” said State Rep. Ed Clere, a New Albany Republican who sits on the House Education Committee. “It’s not a good return on the investment for the student or for the taxpayers.”

The changes with the most fiscal impact for students is yet to come. Students who enroll now in the program as middle-schoolers may not get the full college scholarship promised in the past.

That’s because of two changes the legislature made.

One is the income eligibility requirements: In the past, all students remained eligible for the scholarship even if their family incomes went up from the time when they signed up in middle school.  

In the future, students whose family’s income goes up — who no longer have incomes low enough to be eligible for the free or reduced-price school lunch programs — won’t get the full scholarship when they reach college, but may receive a one-time grant of $2,500 or less. That change went into effect for students who signed up for the program after June 30, 2011. It doesn’t apply to students already signed up.

 That change may save up to $9 million a year since about 20 percent of students who enrolled in the program as middle-schoolers no longer meet the low-income requirement by the time they go to college.

The second big fiscal change: The amount of the scholarship for all students who enrolled after June 30, 2011, may be reduced from a full to a partial scholarship if the state legislature doesn’t fully fund the program. That means no more robbing from other scholarship programs.

State Sen. Luke Kenley, the Republican chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, said the legislature decided it needed to stop making promises it couldn’t keep. He noted that the state had to take $17 million from its other needs-based scholarship funds to cover the obligations made by the 21st Century Scholars program last year. “These may sound like tough measures to take,” Kenley said. “But we can’t keep making open-ended promises.”

State Sen. John Broden, a South Bend Democrat who sits on the State Budget Committee, said he supported some of the changes, but said the program still needs a boost in funding to meet another ambitious goal set by the state: to increase the number of Hoosiers with college degrees from its current 33 percent to 60 percent by 2025. “If we’re going to meet that goal, this is money we’re going to have to spend,” Broden said. He’s calling for an increase in the 21st Century Scholars program in the next budget cycle.

“I can’t think of anything more worthwhile than investing in young people, especially in these students,” Broden said. “It’s money well spent.”

To find out more details about the changes in the 21st Century Scholars program, go to the website of the State Student Assistance Commission of Indiana, at www.in.gov/ssaci.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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