Tapiwa Mzumara felt stuck.
She was tired of working long hours at a shoe store in the mall, earning just enough money to make ends meet and listening to her friends talk about a college experience she didn’t have.
As a teenager, Mzumara thought she’d go to school to become a doctor or a lawyer. She knew she could excel if given the chance. But her financial aid had fallen through, and when she tried to take some classes anyway at IUPUI and Ivy Tech Community College, the full cost of tuition strained her family’s finances.
By her early 20s, going back to college was on indefinite pause. “I decided I wasn’t going to go back until I could get a more stable situation,” Mzumara said.
Then, six years after graduating from high school, Mzumara received an email offering her another shot.
Indy Achieves, a fledgling city education initiative, would settle her $200 outstanding balance with Ivy Tech and pay for her first semester back. This opened the door for her to return to college to study biotechnology. Now she’s serving as student government president and is on track to graduate this year.
For tens of thousands of Hoosiers, the cost of returning to college is more than just tuition — it requires cash up front for unpaid bills from their previous attempts at degrees. These aren’t the colossal student loan debts that have consumed millions of Americans, but smaller missed payments to colleges for classes, fees, textbooks, or other supplies.
Indy Achieves is one program trying to knock down this barrier. As part of $2 million in city-funded scholarships each year, Indy Achieves gives “completion grants” to local students at Ivy Tech’s Indianapolis campus and IUPUI to eliminate the unpaid tuition and book bills that lock them out of re-enrolling.
Out of about 82,000 people across Indiana who owe money to Ivy Tech, the statewide community college system, officials say the median outstanding balance is $550. It’s a dream-ending amount for some students.
“That can be a significant burden for a student to get that kind of money,” said Indy Achieves Executive Director Matt Impink.
This type of scholarship could pave the way for a critical population of students to gain a postsecondary credential, Impink believes. Ten percent of adults in Indiana have some college experience but no degree, and policymakers have zeroed in on the need for some type of credential to lift wage and career prospects.
Among the roughly 900 students awarded completion grants since 2019, Indy Achieves officials say the results are promising. Last school year, for example, three-quarters of completion grant recipients at Ivy Tech graduated or stayed in school — far higher than the average student. At IUPUI, that rate is even better, at 92%.
But Indy Achieves officials know there are thousands of people they aren’t reaching — all of them potential college graduates.
“We know there are more students out there that have stopped out of Ivy Tech and IUPUI,” said Esther Woodson, Indy Achieves’ director. “It’s just, how do we connect with those students? How do we find them? Because we know they’re out there.”
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Offering a ‘fresh start’
Mzumara actually meant to delete the email offering her a completion grant. “I wasn’t in school anymore, so I didn’t need to hear about back-to-school stuff,” she said.
When she accidentally opened it, the email seemed too good to be true. She wondered if someone was playing a prank on her, and she resolved not to get her hopes up.
Thousands of those kinds of emails have gone out in recent years — not just about Indy Achieves — and it seems many students have a similar reaction.
In late 2019, for example, Ivy Tech tried to offer a “fresh start” for students with unpaid bills. The community college sent emails to 17,000 students across Indiana, offering to forgive debts for students who owed less than $1,500 if they met certain GPA requirements and finished school. Ivy Tech also automatically wiped out all balances under $50.
After hearing interest from some 800 students, Ivy Tech was prepared to waive about $1 million in outstanding balances, according to a news report.
But just 163 students came back to school.
Ivy Tech officials called it a moderate success, particularly since community college enrollment has dipped as people face health, family, and financial challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ivy Tech also recently removed another significant consequence of unpaid bills. Last month, the community college stopped barring students who owed money from obtaining their transcripts, which had prevented them from transferring credits or proving they had attended college.
“We understand that the purpose of Ivy Tech is to serve our students and serve our community, and get them on the path to a sustainable career and future,” said Ivy Tech Indianapolis Chancellor Lorenzo Esters. “Why would we be a barrier to that success?”
When Indy Achieves asked scholarship applicants why they wanted the opportunity, officials heard about deep economic needs. They heard from parents struggling to provide for their children but wanting to be role models, people who experienced financial hardships, and students who didn’t want to give up on the progress they had made.
And colleges across the country have realized that eliminating these small debts can be worth far more than what students owe, Impink said, in tuition and, eventually, degrees.
“It’s something that can be very useful in getting a large amount of students back on the right side of things,” he said.
Making the case to return to college
In northeast Indiana, a local community foundation tried a similar tactic last year. In partnership with area universities and colleges, the Degree Finish Line program promised to forgive outstanding balances and provide up to $5,000 in a forgivable loan to adult students who finish their degrees and stay in the region.
But it has only received two or three takers so far.
“There’s a learning in that for us in higher education — that it is harder to get people to come back,” said Liz Bushnell, executive director of the Questa Education Foundation. “Is there a way for us to intervene when students are at risk of dropping out? That might be the priority.”
Seeing the same challenge, Indy Achieves also offers completion grants to students in danger of dropping out, to help them stay in school.
“We’re trying to find the right sweet spot for students who are going to get the grant and graduate as quickly as possible,” Impink said.
The two local campuses help Indy Achieves identify and reach out to potential scholarship recipients. In the two years since its launch, the program has targeted completion grants toward students who are doing well in school, who fill out the federal financial aid application, and who are close to graduating. The average grant at Ivy Tech is $1,100, and grants top out at $2,500 at IUPUI.
But the program is looking to broaden its reach. With the pandemic depressing college enrollment, Indy Achieves hasn’t yet spent its entire $2 million annual budget, which also includes “promise scholarships” to cover other gaps in financial aid.
“It’s an enormous group of potential college graduates that are tricky to engage with, because they’re at all different points of life,” Impink said. “I think we have really figured out a few things on how to execute this program, but the challenge now is really expanding it and getting a lot more folks in the pipeline.”
Officials agree that financial help is just one piece of the puzzle in making college accessible.
Esters, the Ivy Tech chancellor, says it can be challenging to persuade adults to return to college, particularly if they don’t know about opportunities or don’t see the long-term benefits.
“I think so many people are afraid to return because they’re worried, ‘Well, I’ve been out too long,’” Esters said. “When we can connect the meaning or purpose of that learning to potential work, then they’re more likely to return.”
Seizing the opportunity
For Mzumara, the path to college was full of hurdles. Her mother battled chronic illnesses, her family couldn’t afford college, and she didn’t qualify for financial aid because of her immigration status.
Even the Indy Achieves grant was just the beginning. The city program paid off her outstanding debt — about $200 — and footed the tuition for her first semester back, about $2,000.
To cover the rest of her education, Mzumara sought scholarships for women in technology and DACA recipients. She ran for student government president, receiving another scholarship when she was elected. To enter a lottery for yet another scholarship, Mzumara joined the chancellor’s fitness club, walking at lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She won that one, too.
This year, almost a decade after graduating high school, Mzumara will earn an associate degree in biotechnology. She plans to transfer to IUPUI to finish her bachelor’s degree, and after volunteering at a mobile dental clinic, she has set her sights on dental school.
None of those plans are certain. Mzumara is applying for more scholarships to pay her way. But her return to college, she said, has taught her patience.
Rather than feeling daunted by the challenges, Mzumara sees the possibilities. Because maybe, like that email out of the blue a few years ago, there’s an opportunity waiting to be seized.
“I don’t think I would’ve been able to go to college as soon as I did,” Mzumara said. “And who knows what would’ve happened? Maybe I wouldn’t have gone at all.”
Stephanie Wang covers higher education for Chalkbeat Indiana, in partnership with Open Campus.