INDIANAPOLIS – A recent survey of 9,000 Indiana college students receiving state financial aid showed 75 percent believe they will graduate in four years.
But only 50 percent are taking enough courses to do so.
This disconnect is leading to a disappointing six-year graduation rate for the states two largest scholarship programs – 44 percent for the Frank OBannon grant and 39 percent for the 21st Century Scholars program.
Indiana spends about $250 million a year on these need-based aid programs.
State officials and lawmakers are now looking at an overhaul of state student aid that would try to direct the money to students staying on track for four-year completion.
Although the amount of money available for scholarships wont go down, some students will receive less money and some will receive more. Some could even lose eligibility for the programs altogether.
We hope the students will be able to stay in by changing their behavior, said Mary Jane Michalak, associate commissioner of student financial aid. That means completing courses. Right now, the state is paying for courses students never complete.
Basically we want to pay for what we value in the program.
Rep. Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte, is carrying legislation on behalf of the Commission for Higher Education that targets the issue. House Bill 1348 passed the House 77-18 and is now in the Senate.
We have to do something different to encourage kids to get in and out in four years, he said. Were focusing on the kids progressing toward a degree.
Students struggling to make the grade, however, think lawmakers are pushing too hard.
Its just not possible, said Nick Brewer, 28, of Columbia City.
Brewer has been attending IPFW off and on for 10 years to get a degree in hospitality management. He has received state aid, but he also works full time, has a mortgage and two small children.
It only works if you dont have a job and all you do is go to school, he said. Four-year degree programs are a thing of the past with the economy and tuition costs.
The OBannon grant is a limited financial aid program for tuition and fees. It was originally crafted to cover 80 percent of those costs, but as more students become eligible and tuition has increased that percentage has dropped. The maximum grant to attend a public college is $3,912 a year.
The 21st Century Scholars program is for students who sign up in middle school and promise to meet certain character requirements in exchange for full tuition and fees at a public university, which averages around $7,600 annually.
Both programs have eligibility guidelines related to income.
The state has a few smaller scholarships, but the mass of students – more than 73,000 – are in these two programs and some receive both. More than 87,000 students receive some sort of state scholarship aid for a total of $277 million in awards annually.
The major change the new legislation proposes for the program would be to focus on completed classes, not those attempted – a new level of accountability for students.
So if a 21st Century Scholar would drop below the completion track, which is 30 credit hours a year, that student would be moved to the Frank OBannon grant.
That means less aid.
If a Frank OBannon recipient attends a public school, the grant would now depend on the progress made toward a degree. A maximum award for freshmen would be $3,100 plus a possible $1,400 more if the student graduated high school with an academic or technical honors diploma.
For sophomores, juniors and seniors at public schools, a maximum award would be $3,100 plus an additional $1,400 if at least a 3.0 grade-point average was earned in the previous academic year and an additional $1,300 for completing at least 39 credit hours in the previous academic year.
These dollar amounts vary for private schools or those attending Ivy Tech Community College. Also, 21st Century Scholars dont get additional incentives since they receive full tuition and fees.
Those on Frank OBannon grants can complete as little as 24 credit hours a year and still be counted as a full-time student. But if students go under that amount, they could lose their scholarship.
The proposed changes also would allow students to use their aid more easily during summer terms, which might make it easier for some students to reach the needed credit hours over three semesters instead of two.
And the bill removes the GPA requirement put in two years ago. Michalak said kids were so worried about not making the grade they werent taking enough hours. Kids will still have to keep the federal minimum known as satisfactory academic progress to maintain scholarships.
All the changes would be phased in over multiple years so current college students would be unaffected.
Dermody and other supporters point to the debt students are adding when they stay for five or more years.
State aid covers only four years worth of classes and a fifth year can cost $50,000 more in extra tuition, lost wages and related costs.
Michalak said 73 percent of the state-aid recipients say they will take on more debt to finance their fifth year. But the worst-case scenario is the 13 percent who say they will not finish their degree if aid runs out, meaning they have debt and no degree.
Maureen Arens, 22, of Auburn said graduating in four years is just not feasible for everyone, saying some students change majors or have to work. She also has a learning disability that means she comprehends new material slowly and sometimes has to take classes twice.
Arens is in her third year at IPFW and receives both 21st Century and OBannon grants. She is seeking a general-studies degree and plans to move to IUPUI for a masters degree in library science.
During her time at IPFW, she has taken between 12 and 16 credit hours a semester. But she hasnt completed all the classes.
Every person learns at their own pace, Arens said. I cant handle it mentally. I think they should recommend it or urge it but not force it.
Michalak said someone with a learning disability can appeal for a special dispensation.
A mother who responded to The Journal Gazette said the requirements are too strict.
Lisa Goodpasters son is a freshman at Indiana University majoring in business and has received an OBannon grant. She said the university encourages students to devote at least two hours of study time for each credit hour they take.
So if he is taking 16 credit hours, but actually is in class 20 hours a week, he is devoting more than 50 hours a week to his studies. And many students have jobs as well.
Goodpaster also has a daughter who is a high school sophomore and hopes to receive a 21st Century scholarship.
She makes decent grades, but Im concerned that she wont be able to carry a 15 credit-hour load once she goes to college and still be able to work, she said. Im hoping once she is in college, that this wont discourage her to drop out. Furthermore, Im not certain how I can afford to work more jobs to be able to afford more loans, especially if she gets less money than (my son) does.
The legislation also requires public universities to create a degree map for every student, spelling out exactly what they need to do and what courses they need to take to graduate in four years.
The provision in the bill actually requires universities to provide free courses if a student cant get into a class through no fault of their own.
And the bill includes a one-time completion bonus, which is being pushed by Gov. Mike Pence.
Students earning a bachelors degree in four years would receive $1,000; the bonus would rise to $1,500 if they graduate early. The money could be used for a host of things, such as moving expenses for a new job, a professional wardrobe or to pay down student loans.
Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate and said he doesnt fully understand the logic behind that grant, which could cost the state millions once fully implemented.
Overall, though, Kenley agrees that the legislature has to move to make the programs more efficient.
There is a failure to complete by recipients, and we are trying to encourage accountability, he said.