To reach the city of Indianapolis’ lofty goal of giving every resident access to college, it’s going to take more than money.
It’s going to take a lot of nudging.
Educators know that many students are capable of college coursework and could qualify for financial aid — but too many of them are failing at the logistics of getting into college and sticking with it until they graduate.
That’s why the city’s new education initiative, a key state scholarship program, and private organizations are all looking to improve those nudges — using a human touch to prepare students for college, encourage them to apply, and push them to graduate. The programs use a variety of approaches, such as text messages from business leaders to high schoolers or “college champions” who cheer students on to graduation.
“Whether you’re a first-generation college student, or you’re someone with a lot of college graduates in your family, the process is complicated,” said Matt Impink, executive director of Indy Achieves. “There’s a lot to know, and a lot of deadlines to hit. We want to give them simple guidance about how to get those things done.”
Indy Achieves, the city’s new education initiative, focuses on this need for a greater network of human support, and identifies where students need more check-ins and guidance, particularly students from low-income families who may face extra challenges along the way.
In addition to expanding financial aid opportunities for students, Indy Achieves calls for additional resources and strategies for school counselors, mentors at the high school level for the transition to college, and more guidance for adults seeking college credentials.
One area of focus will be on the state’s 21st Century Scholars program. Even though the needs-based scholarship program covers tuition at Indiana colleges, it’s hard to get students to sign up — more than half of eligible Hoosier students miss out on the opportunity to have the state pay for college.
And while 21st Century Scholars are more likely to go to college and be ready for college-level courses, they often struggle to stay in school and graduate on time, if they do at all. Less than one-third of 21st Century Scholars graduate in four years, and about half graduate within an extended timeline of six years, according to state data. While that puts them ahead of their low-income peers, they’re still falling behind compared to students overall.
Indy Achieves plans to work with middle- and high-school counselors to increase federal financial aid and state scholarship sign-ups. The initiative will also recruit volunteers from the business community this winter to mentor high school seniors through the college transition with in-person meetings and scripted text reminders.
“They’ll be our eyes and ears on the ground with what students are having struggles with, and what we need to do to help point students toward services,” Impink said.
The Indiana Commission for Higher Education also plans to build similar supports into the 21st Century Scholars program next year, asking students to identify a college mentor or “champion” who will encourage them through college.
The tweak comes in part because of results from the Gallup-Purdue Index, which surveys students to measure college outcomes. The survey found that students with emotional support systems — such as mentors, or professors who they felt cared about their success — were more likely to succeed in college and in the workforce.
In recent years, the state has also placed AmeriCorps members — dubbed “ScholarCorps” — at college campuses to advise, coach, and mentor 21st Century Scholars. The program has boosted retention rates, said Jarod Wilson, the commission’s Director of Postsecondary Outreach and Career Transitions.
“If a student has a flat tire, that could just completely change their trajectory and their ability to complete classes that semester,” he said. “Emergency aid — the 21st Century Scholarship doesn’t cover those things, but we’re able to help them navigate the issues through it. There’s a lot more that happens on the holistic side of the student that’s more than just being able to pay for tuition and fees.”
The city and state programs also rely on a web of partner organizations that provide their own mentoring and support for students, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Center for Leadership Development, 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, Boys II Men, and the Starfish Initiative.
The mentoring programs often try to find ways to work together, seeing themselves as complementary rather than competitive.
At the Starfish Initiative, an Indianapolis nonprofit focused on college access and readiness for low-income students, mentoring pairs are carefully curated to develop one-on-one relationships, which the organization said results in more than 75 percent of its students graduating from college. It’s a much more involved program than what the city and state can offer.
The program is serving more than 400 students this year, selecting high-achieving freshmen in need of both financial and emotional supports to match with volunteer mentors. Throughout high school, students participate in an annual leadership camp, make college visits, and talk regularly with their mentors, who take them out to restaurants, see concerts, or watch sports.
“If you think about investing, we believe these are the kids to invest in,” said Starfish Initiative president and CEO Gisele Garraway. “We think if you have a dollar, or if you have an hour of time, where might you get the best return on investment? We think it’s Starfish scholars.”
Through the program, students learn how to write professional emails, meet sign-up deadlines, and find friends with similar goals. They have someone to talk to about career paths, college choices, first loves, and family losses.
Catalina Lua wasn’t sure what to think when her son told her about the Starfish program. Hardly anyone she knew was familiar with the program, and she was wary of trusting her child to a stranger.
But her son, Alejandro, a 14-year-old freshman at Lawrence North High School, wanted to participate, and he was excited to go to the leadership camp and meet the older Starfish scholars. The Luas don’t have extended family living nearby, and Catalina worries about 14 being a tough age.
Alejandro had been playing football for years, but all of a sudden, this year he didn’t want to go. Catalina asked why, and all Alejandro said was that he was losing interest and wanted a break.
They met his mentor, an older man named Dave, who reminds Catalina of a grandpa and who has mentored before. He has stopped by the house to spend time with Alejandro’s family, and taken Alejandro out to restaurants.
He calls Alejandro to ask about school and his interests. They talk about wrestling, the sport that Alejandro got into when he stopped playing football.
“Sometimes I ask him, how was school? And he says just a few words. He doesn’t talk much,” Catalina said. “But I notice when he talks on the phone with Dave, I see he talks more. He says more. So I’m hoping maybe my son will be more comfortable speaking with him.”