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Automatic enrollment law could double 21st Century Scholars program

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Two current 21st Century Scholars on Monday say automatic enrollment would have been a big help when they applied for the program.

Galilea Romo says her parents did not speak English when they first came to the United States. As a result, her older sister had to handle many of the responsibilities for applying for the 21st Century Scholars program herself when she was in middle school.

“At the time, she was about 12 or 13, which is a huge responsibility for a young teenager,” Romo said. “My mother and sister had to work through the application process themselves and they said it was pretty rough on them.”

For Dema Amro, the issue wasn’t the paperwork, but rather a lack of awareness about the program. She says the only reason her mother knew to sign her up was because of a chance conversation at a back-to-school gathering.

“She actually didn’t know about it. It was an accidental thing,” she said, adding her cousins also signed up once her mother told them.

Both women are now entering their senior years at IUPUI. Romo is studying medical humanities and health studies with the goal of becoming a facial reconstructive surgeon, while Amro is studying biology and considering a career in oncology. The 21st Century Scholars program is covering all of their tuition.

First launched in the early 1990s, 21st Century Scholars covers up to 100 percent of tuition at an in-state two- or four-year institution. The program is available for anyone who attends an accredited public or private K-12 school in Indiana and receives free or reduced-price school meals. In order to receive tuition aid, families need to fill out an application.

Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Chris Lowery says barely half of the eligible families filled out an application in any given year. He says 48% of eligible students enrolled in the program last year.

This spring, state lawmakers almost unanimously approved a bill to automatically enroll any eligible student in the 21st Century Scholars program. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law on May 4.

Lowery says he expects at least 20,000 additional students will use the program each year as a result. “We are literally going to double the number of students,” he said.

Lowery says numerous economic and social indicators improve once someone earns a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. Besides an 80% jump in median income compared to someone with no postsecondary education, he says college graduates have lower unemployment and higher labor force participation rates.

Lowery also says they are less likely to need public assistance and health outcomes improve as well, with lower infant mortality and an extra 12 years of life expectancy.

For both Romo and Amro, the scholarship meant they were able to pursue the college degrees they wanted. Romo says both she and her older sister attended IUPUI without having to pay any tuition.

Romo says she will have to pay for medical school and her younger sister will have to pay for her undergraduate degree but Romo says her family believes they can cover both. Amro says had she not been able to attend IUPUI tuition-free, she likely would have chosen a different major.

In addition to their own duties, the two students mentor others who are enrolled at IUPUI through 21st Century Scholars. Romo says the new automatic enrollment law will take a lot of pressure off of those students’ families.

“I feel like automatic enrollment would have made it so much easier for everyone [in my family],” she said. “It would make that transition so much easier for all of the students and all of the parents.”

Lowery says students enrolled in the program will still need to meet minimum GPA requirements and not have any disciplinary actions against them.

The program covers 100 percent of tuition for students who attend a public college or university. Participating institutions include all campuses within the IU, Purdue, and Ivy Tech systems, as well as Indiana State, Vincennes, Ball State universities, and the University of Southern Indiana.

Students who choose a private college will have to pay a small share of the tuition. Private colleges that take part include Notre Dame, the University of Indianapolis, and Butler University.

The automatic enrollment law takes effect July 1.