To help fortify Indiana’s workforce for the future, the University of Southern Indiana (USI) in Evansville, Indiana, has implemented a multitiered initiative intended to increase college going and graduation rates. The downward trend of high school graduates pursuing postsecondary education has raised concerns since the latter half of the past decade. For example, with only 53% of seniors enrolling in a college or university, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education noted that this percentage translates into about 4,000 fewer seniors in the 2020–21 school year compared with the previous year alone. This downswing is occurring even as the evolving knowledge-based economy has been calling for employees with a higher level of postsecondary educational attainment than currently exists in the state.
In an effort to address these two trends, USI developed the Pathways to College initiative that seeks to increase the number and diversity of income-eligible students in the 21st Century Scholars program. For more than 25 years, the Scholars program has guaranteed the cost of tuition for up to four years at participating public colleges or universities in Indiana for eligible high school graduates. On average, around 8,000 students benefit from this program annually. USI established its initiative to complement and expand upon the Scholars program’s goals. The university reaches out to middle schoolers, the state program’s target audience, to discuss and emphasize the importance of higher education, and stays with them through their high school experience. University staff then engages the students in the college admission, testing, and financial aid processes; offers overnight college visits where students attend classes and participate in activities; and hosts cultural immersion programs on campus.
As part of the Pathways initiative, USI created a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen. During this six-week program, students take six college credit hours and are immersed in on-campus activities and university resources, while gaining exposure to community partners. This summer program seeks to aid first-generation attendees and students of color, including those from rural communities. Through these efforts, USI aims to make its college experience—where students can pursue more than 130 areas of study—accessible and affordable to a greater number of students.
Not only does the Pathways to College initiative address the students’ economic, academic, and socioeconomic challenges, it requires collaboration among various individuals and groups. It involves the family unit as well as USI, the high schools, and the middle schools to provide greater opportunities for many students who might otherwise not pursue higher education. In turn, this initiative not only helps to diversify the USI student population and increase enrollment of high school seniors in college above the state average, but it also provides upward mobility for families and the communities in which they live.
USI developed the Pathways to College initiative through extensive collaboration. Beginning in sixth grade, the university plants the seed about the importance of a college degree through engagement with middle-level students and their parents/guardians. Information sessions focus on academic preparedness for high school, financial literacy, and short- and long-term goals. This effort focuses on increasing the number of students who qualify for the Indiana 21st Century Scholars program in seventh and eighth grades.
For the pre-collegiate programs in high schools, a steering committee consisting of USI and local school system staff members identifies the expectations and anticipated outcomes of the programs. To assist the committee are quantitative and qualitative surveys students and parents/guardians complete at the conclusion of each program. These programs are as follows:
- Opportunities to learn about the college admission, test-taking, and financial aid processes as well as college readiness;
- Discover USI, an overnight campus visit for prospective students that includes attending a class;
- Access Granted, an overnight weekend campus visit led by the Multicultural Center and Housing and Residence Life staff, complete with team-oriented activities; and
- USI Affinity Days, an event led by the Multicultural Center for cultural immersion, specifically Black and Latinx cultures.
Officials then track the transition of students from one program to the next and their eventual matriculation to USI.
In the summer bridge program, university officials use certain indicators to determine its ongoing effectiveness among participants. They evaluate the relevance and value of the USI resources, services, and community partners by surveying the participating incoming freshmen. In addition, the staff track the enrollment and completion rate of the students in the summer bridge program. Through these efforts, USI aims to make postsecondary education accessible and affordable to more students and contribute to an evolving, diverse workforce that strengthens communities.
USI’s supplemental programs are intended to build on the momentum of the 21st Century Scholars program by increasing the number and diversity of its participants while boosting USI enrollment. Programs have already resulted in first-time student enrollment at USI. A 2021 report by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, titled “Indiana’s Promise: A Report on the 21st Century Scholars Program,” indicates that student improvement can be seen in college readiness, attendance, persistence, and completion. Since its inception in 1990, the scholarship program has assisted more than 45,000 income-eligible students in earning a degree from a two-year or four-year state college or university, according to a media release from the state commission.
The program tends to attract mainly White and Asian students from low-income households. Only about 10% of high school graduates are scholarship participants, but the commission contends many more students could and should access this program. Nearly 90% of high school graduates in this program go directly into higher education compared with the state average of around 60%. These students also are “as likely or more likely than their higher-income peers to graduate college on time,” regardless of gender, race, and ethnicity, according to the release. Between 2010 and 2016, the on-time completion rate of Scholars from two- and four-year higher education institutions has almost doubled, outpacing the comparable
Universities and colleges considering implementing a similar initiative should take into account various factors. These points should be analyzed through the particular circumstances of your institution. Among these issues are the needs and expectations of the targeted community, partnership-building, funding, physical space, program implementation, virtual access, and processes to evaluate the program’s success and impact.