- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) - Northwestern High School senior Matt Jaeger plans to study agricultural economics in college, and thanks to a decision he made in eighth grade, he’ll receive a scholarship to cover his tuition at any state university.

Jaeger is a 21st Century Scholar, which means he’s part of a state-funded scholarship program open to seventh and eighth graders who meet certain income requirements. For a student like Jaeger - who has been involved in multiple school sports and clubs while maintaining a perfect GPA - meeting the requirements of the scholarship program came easily, the Kokomo Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/1M4EUWa).

“It’s just don’t do anything stupid is really all it is,” Jaeger said of the 21st Century Scholar pledge middle school students sign when they first enroll. “The requirements weren’t a problem.”

Going to college was assumed in Jaeger’s family. His mother, Cindy Harshbarger, is a teacher at Northwestern High School, and she helped him enroll in the 21st Century Scholar program. If Jaeger gets into his first-choice college, Purdue University, he will be a fourth-generation Boilermaker.

“It makes it a lot easier knowing I can go to any college I want, as long as I get in,” Jaeger said. “(College) was no doubt in my mind. Academics has always been top in my family.”

But that’s not the case for every family, which may explain why such a small fraction of eligible students actually take advantage of the state-funded scholarship program.

About 146 Howard County eighth-graders enrolled last school year in the 21st Century Scholar program. Unfortunately, that’s only 28.4 percent of the 514 students who were eligible to sign up, and now their window of opportunity has passed.

Indiana’s 21st Century Scholar program has reached its 25th anniversary this year, and more than 70,000 students have received the state-funded scholarships since the program began. Currently, more than 110,000 students from eighth grade through college are enrolled.

Still, that’s only a fraction of the students who are eligible for the scholarship based on their families’ income levels. Statewide, just one-third of eligible eighth-graders in the 2014-15 school year enrolled in the program.

21st Century Scholars take a pledge in eighth grade saying they will complete the Scholar Success Program, which includes various college-readiness activities throughout students’ high school careers; they will graduate high school with at least a Core 40 diploma and GPA of 2.5; they will not use illegal drugs, commit a crime or delinquent act or consume alcohol before reaching the legal drinking age; they will file the FAFSA their senior year of high school and apply to college; and then they will maintain satisfactory academic progress in college.

Parents need to enroll their students as scholars when they are in seventh grade or by June 30 of their eighth grade year. Students who successfully fulfill the requirements of the pledge receive up to four years’ worth of tuition at eligible colleges and universities.

Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers thinks one reason families don’t pursue the 21st Century Scholar option when it’s available is that they don’t see higher education as a necessity.

“A lot of what we talk about at the commission in partnership with our colleges and universities is about changing a mindset - a culture of a state - to get them to understand that education beyond high school is more important than ever,” Lubbers said previously. “Families need to understand that what was their story is not the story of the 21st century.”

In past generations, people could maintain a middle class standard of living, complete with a pension and health care, without education beyond high school, Lubbers noted. That’s not the case anymore, so students need to start planning early for their post-secondary education.

Amy Parraga, 21st Century Scholars outreach coordinator for the North Central region, said the uncertainty surrounding the whole process of applying to, paying for and succeeding in college may be overwhelming for parents who don’t have personal experience in the world of higher education. That can deter them from pursuing the 21st Century Scholar program for their children.

“The uncertainty of how to go about post-secondary education, if I am a parent having never done it myself, . might make me hesitant to even pursue it,” Parraga said.

The CHE reviewed a 21st Century Scholar progress report at its September meeting at Indiana University Kokomo, which found Scholars are 1.4 times more likely to be the first in their family to attend college than the general population of Indiana students who apply for financial aid.

There are a variety of options for education after high school, including two-year degrees, four-year degrees and technical certifications, and Parraga said families need to realize high school graduation is not the finish line.

“You hear that a lot, ‘If I can just get to graduation,’” she added. “But high school graduation really is just the beginning.”

At Northwestern School Corp., students are first introduced to the 21st Century Scholar program in sixth grade, when guidance counselor Kelsey Schueler has every student take a pledge to graduate from high school. They discuss the goal and then students fill out a pledge online, where they also have access to career surveys and other information on post-secondary plans.

In middle school, guidance counselor Heather Racine sends information about the scholarship opportunity home with students, and a link to the 21st Century Scholar website is on the school’s page.

“Mostly, parents just do it themselves” online, Racine said, adding parents also are welcome to come to the school if they want assistance with the form. “For the most part, it’s a fairly simple process.”

Lubbers says a communitywide commitment to increasing awareness of the scholarship program is necessary to get more eligible students to enroll. But enrolling is just the first step, Lubbers added. Communities should commit to not only getting their students access to college, but then helping them succeed once they get there.

“The places where we’re most successful at getting people to sign up are where you have schools, community leaders, churches, everybody sort of taking this on as a part of their commitment,” she said. “As hard as (getting eligible students enrolled) is and as important as that is, . that is still the easier part of it. The harder part of it is getting them to . use that time in high school to make sure they’re prepared (for college) and then to complete once they get there.”

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Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com

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