Article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal

Jason Kloth: Three steps to improve Indiana’s education outcomes

Indiana’s labor market is rapidly changing, with today’s jobs requiring more education. A recent Ascend Indiana and EmployIndy study reports highly skilled, highly educated workers are the most in demand across Indiana. Yet statistics paint a negative trend, with fewer high school graduates pursuing the education needed to fill those roles.

The good news is state legislators have introduced practical steps to address that gap by making adjustments to the 21st Century Scholars program, graduation waivers and ways of obtaining financial aid. If enacted, these steps will create greater economic opportunity for low-income Hoosiers while growing Indiana’s economy and tax base.

The first concept involves the 21st Century Scholars program, which has helped more than 50,000 Hoosiers earn degrees or credentials since its 1990 creation. While 77% of Indiana’s high school seniors indicated plans to attend college, only 53% of last year’s class actually enrolled. The results are far more promising for students in the scholars program: 81% of 21st Century Scholars program students of all ethnicities matriculated to college. The extra income they will earn over their lifetimes as a result of being able to receive higher education adds up to nearly 10 times the cost of the program.

Unfortunately, more than half of Indiana students who qualify as 21st Century Scholars fail to apply. Eligible families must complete and submit a complex application during middle school—long before most students give serious thought to their future.

One proposal provides a sensible, practical way to increase participation by automatically enrolling all students who meet income and academic performance standards. Creating more 21st Century Scholars will stem Indiana’s decline in postsecondary enrollment and help disadvantaged students gain economic mobility. States taking similar actions have seen increases in postsecondary enrollment.

A companion strategy will require all high school seniors to complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—commonly called the FAFSA—giving students access to the billions of dollars in available federal and state student aid. Today, just more than a third of students submit the FAFSA form, and the National College Attainment Network reports Indiana students left $69.4 million in Pell Grants on the table because they didn’t file.

A third proposed change will provide greater transparency in identifying student preparedness for a college education. Indiana allows high schools to issue waivers to students who do not pass 10th grade English language arts and math standards. While waivers serve a valuable purpose and are intended to be used in rare instances, the number of students receiving them has grown substantially. In some districts, more than a fifth of students receive waivers to graduate, and statewide, 24% of Black students receive them.

Under current law, schools are allowed to include students receiving waivers when they compute their graduation rates. The new legislation would mandate schools to be transparent about waiver rates, giving parents and policymakers a more accurate sense of school performance.

These three concepts offer sound, practical solutions to immediate needs and will provide long-term benefits to students and Indiana’s economy. We appreciate the legislators who have drafted and support these powerful ideas to enhance economic mobility for all.•


Kloth is president and CEO of Ascend Indiana.

About Ascend Indiana

An initiative of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP), Ascend Indiana is committed to making Indiana a place of economic opportunity for all. Ascend connects job seekers to good and promising career opportunities through an innovative job matching platform, the Ascend Network; catalyzes partnerships and provides consulting services to meet high-demand workforce needs through Ascend Services; and conducts research through Ascend Insights to enable systems-level change that positively impacts individuals throughout the state. To learn more, visit