Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

October 11, 2012

Heinig: Let’s keep our promise to low-income Hoosiers

21st Century Scholar tweaks were poorly timed

By Mark Heinig
Guest columnist

— Once in a while, our Indiana legislators blunder their way into legislation that not only helps Hoosiers but also gives Republicans and Democrats an opportunity to agree with each other! Those things are hard to find in our present political climate, where nonsense frequently outweighs common sense. However, when they do appear, we can usually depend on our lawmakers to tinker with them and totally screw them up!

The Twenty-first Century Scholars program is a good example. It was a great idea when it started back in 1990. Offering a full college scholarship to economically disadvantaged middle school students who earned good grades, behaved themselves, and didn’t abuse drugs was a huge step forward in our quest for equal opportunity, economic prosperity and social justice for all Hoosiers.

This program worked well for two decades. Then it began to cost too much, according to our dollar-conscious lawmakers. So they changed it. New participants will need better grades to get into the program and stay there. Also, they may only receive one-time grants or partial scholarships if their family incomes increase or if future legislatures don’t fully fund the program.

It’s entirely possible that future Indiana legislatures will be unwilling or unable to find enough money to completely pay for the program. On July 4, CNHI correspondent Maureen Hayden reported the annual cost had doubled in just four years to $46.5 million. The state paid that by transferring money from other scholarship funds designed to help low-income families. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul!

Although the cost factor is a very serious consideration, the recent changes in the Twenty-first Century Scholars program are poorly timed and unwise. They are poorly timed because they limit training opportunities in a period of lingering unemployment. Yes, the job outlook is improving, but very slowly. The changes are also unwise because our youth need more training for 21st century jobs, not less. If they can’t get it here, they must seek it in other states.

When young Hoosiers leave Indiana for training, prospective employers will follow. They need a well-educated, highly skilled work force. They must find workers who can fill today’s jobs and also learn what they need to know for tomorrow’s jobs. If Indiana can’t provide such workers, new employers will not come here, and current employers will relocate.

The Twenty-first Century Scholars program is crucial to an especially vulnerable part of our youth. They struggle with economic challenges every day. Although they are eligible for Pell grants and student loans, many of them do not see a college degree as a realistic possibility. They may still need to work at part- or full-time jobs to help their families. Without a good education, their futures look bleak. They may be headed for a life of financial insecurity and permanent unemployment.

Critics of this program are quick to point out that most of the participants need more than four years to earn a college degree, and many do not do it in six years. So what? I know some very successful college graduates who needed more than six years to graduate. Even those who never finish can learn things that help them get good jobs and advance to better ones.

In the real-world economy, what you can actually do is ultimately more important than how long it took you to learn it. A few years ago, I did some admissions work for a well-respected junior college. My job was to talk to high school seniors about the opportunities the college offered. Most of those opportunities were technological. The demand was so great many students left to accept very good job offers before finishing their degrees. Who could call those students failures merely because they lacked a piece of paper?

Frankly, I do not envy the legislators who must decide how to continue the Twenty-first Century Scholars program. The need for it is immense, but so is the cost, and both are increasing. I don’t really know how to respond to this dilemma. As a school administrator, deciding how much money to give the students and the schools was never my responsibility. My job was deciding how to use the money that was provided.

I understand our legislators must make choices. Some of the choices aren’t easy. I just hope those choices do not prevent our economically disadvantaged kids from getting 21st century job skills.

* Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana teacher and principal and frequent contributor to the Kokomo Tribune. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.