Decatur Township educators know 21st Century Scholars, a state-funded college scholarship program, can be life-changing for their students, many of whom come from poor families.

To encourage students to sign up by the deadline at the end of eighth grade, Decatur Middle School staff send parents letters, emails, and automated phone messages. They host school events and help families fill out the application, said Chris Duzenbery, director of college and career readiness for Decatur.

But the district’s sign up rate is still dismal: Only a quarter of Decatur eighth-graders who were eligible for 21st Century Scholarships signed up last year, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. That’s down 12 percent from 2014, when 37 percent of eligible students enrolled.

Decatur has the lowest participation rate in Marion County, but schools across Indianapolis and the state struggle to sign students up. In Marion County, just 52 percent of eligible eighth graders registered for the program in 2017. Statewide, about 46 percent of eligible students signed up.

In other words, last year, more than half the Indiana students who were poor enough to be eligible for the scholarships missed out on the opportunity to have the state pay their college tuition.

Eighth-grade students signed up for 21st Century Scholars in 2017

Source: Indiana Commission for Higher Education analysis using free and reduced price meal eligibility data from the Indiana Department of Education. (Image by Sam Park)

Funded by the state, 21st Century Scholarships pay for up to four years of college tuition — which could add up to more than $40,000. To get that money, students must come from low-income families (with a maximum income of $45,510 for a family of four) and they must meet a host of eligibility requirements, such as maintaining a 2.5 GPA. Those requirements begin in middle school when students must sign up for the program by June 30 of their eighth grade year. If they miss that deadline, they lose the chance to participate.

For Decatur staff, the low signup rate is a bit of a mystery. “It baffles me to tell the truth,” Duzenbery said.

One challenge for the district is simply staffing. Decatur Middle School, which has nearly 1,000 students in seventh and eighth grades, has two guidance counselors. With so many students to work with, those counselors are stretched thin, Duzenbery said. That’s also common in Indiana, where schools have an average of 559 students per counselor, according to state data.

In recent years, most Marion County districts have seen increases in the number of students signing up for the 21st Century Scholar program. In Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, about 46 percent of eligible eighth graders had signed up in 2014. Four years later, the number of students enrolled rose to 65 percent.

The scholarships are also at the center of Indy Achieves, a sweeping new initiative from Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett that aims to make college more accessible to the residents of the city. The program includes a new focus on working with school districts to ensure students take advantage of existing scholarship money.

“While it can certainly be a challenge to connect with eligible students for the 21st Century Scholars program, many of our middle and high school partners in Marion County have seen improvement in terms of Scholar enrollment recently,” said Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers in a statement.

For many of the children, getting the scholarship can be life-changing. That’s why staff at the James and Rosemary Phalen Leadership Academy were so excited when every eligible student in the class of nearly 40 eighth graders registered for the program.

Each year, the charter network that runs the school takes students on college visits around the state, said principal Nicole Fama. But since more than 90 percent of students at the middle school on the far eastside of Indianapolis qualify for free lunch, many of them know their parents cannot afford the steep sticker price for college.

Once students learned about 21st Century Scholarships, college “became a lot more real,” Fama said. “That makes those college visits so much more credible.”

Phalen, a charter school in its first year, had a small class of eighth-graders. But it still took months of work to get students signed up, said Fama. Like Decatur, the school told parents about the program through letters, emails, and personal calls. Teachers talked about it with students, and children brought the news home to their parents.

“Little by little, people would start calling, like, ‘Hey, my son’s making me crazy about filling out this really big application.’ We’d say, ‘come on in, and we’ll help you with it,’ ” Fama said. “That’s what we did. I mean, we literally walked people through it.”

All that work can have a huge payoff for families. Dietra Vaden, a parent who also works as a behavior dean at the Phalen middle school, said she had heard of the scholarship before, but she didn’t entirely understand how it worked or that it would be an option for her son, a rising-eighth grader. As a single mother, Vaden said, she thought she wouldn’t be able to afford college for her son. The prospect of 21st Century Scholarship changed that.

“We didn’t think we were gonna have this privilege,” she said.