Courting Valedictorians

Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana's statewide two-year system, offers limited scholarships to the top graduate of every high school in the state.
July 8, 2011

Ivy Tech Community College announced last month that it was awarding every high school valedictorian in Indiana a scholarship valued at 15 credit hours, or about $1,500. Officials at the 24-campus community college system know better than to think they'll lure all 373 of these high-performing students away from four-year institutions with such a modest merit award. They merely hope the students will pass through to pick up some spare credits to transfer along their route to a baccalaureate degree, and that their presence will help promote the state’s two-year colleges to more households.

A few weeks ago, letters outlining the merit scholarship were sent to the valedictorian of the class of 2011 from each of Indiana’s accredited public and private high schools. The scholarship can be used for in-person or online classes at any Ivy Tech campus. The scholarship must be used within two years of graduating high school.

The letter notes that “courses can be taken during summer terms” and that “many of Ivy Tech’s courses transfer to other colleges and universities.” Still, it does come with the disclaimer that “you should first check with the college or university you are attending to ensure credits will be accepted.”

Thomas J. Snyder, president of Ivy Tech, said the valedictorian scholarships are meant to promote the relatively new community college system.

“In Indiana, the state didn’t formally recognize its community colleges until 2005 and didn’t begin its aggressive transfer programs to other colleges until 2008,” Snyder explained. “Also, many just aren’t recognizing that the associate degree is a great steppingstone to get a great job in the shorter term if life gets in the way. We’re late in getting people to understand what community colleges should do in this state.”

Snyder noted that Ivy Tech previously gave numerous merit awards in a way that he said “wasn’t well-organized.” This year, he noted, its officials decided to simplify the awarding of merit scholarships by offering them to a “more definitive cohort”: all high school valedictorians in the state. The amount of money Ivy Tech gives annually in merit aid will remain the same — about $500,000 to $600,000 — and no money is being taken away from need-based aid for these scholarships, Snyder said. Because the state has not capped enrollment, he said, these students would not take the place of other community college students who might have a greater need to get into certain classes.

“The only real pushback I’ve seen is that some of the high schools in the state are saying, ‘We’d rather pick someone for this scholarship because our valedictorian is going to Stanford and he may or may not use it,’ ” Snyder said. “My thought is, well, let’s try to get the top talent in the state to come here for three credits or maybe up to 15 credits, and everyone will benefit from that type of exposure. The valedictorians will get exposure coming to us and learning more about community college, and we’ll benefit from having the brightest students in Indiana come to take classes with us.”

Snyder said he wasn’t sure how many valedictorians would take advantage of the award but said that it would be worth it if at least 20 to 25 percent of them took a class at a community college. Having these students experience a two-year college firsthand, he said, would help the system “tell its story.”

“We’re Indiana’s summer school,” Snyder said. “We’ve not put that out there as our motto, but we need to let more people know that. We’ve been able to keep tuition low for everybody, and we've frozen tuition for national guardsmen in our state. So this merit thing is not being done alone, it’s being done in conjunction with other things.”

Stephen G. Katsinas, professor of higher education and director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, said what Ivy Tech is doing with merit scholarships is not entirely unheard-of in the sector.

“Community colleges have been offering scholarships to talented high school students, like valedictorians and salutatorians, for decades,” said Katsinas, noting that the practice is especially prevalent among rural community colleges with flat populations to encourage students to stay in the area. “Still, I think community college people, at least philosophically, always favor need-based aid over merit-based aid because community colleges are about access and need-based aid is one way to propel access forward.”

Still, Katsinas said it was easy to understand why Ivy Tech would embrace such a move to promote itself. In one of his surveys of community college state directors, Katsinas found that most officials found that their state’s merit- and need-based student aid wasn’t “funded well enough so that low-income students can work through college without debt.”

“Recognizing that there isn’t money there to cover all that they want, the state is simply using this to promote a very important recent initiative, which is transfer statewide,” Katsinas said. “It’s a marketing tool for them. Transfer is a recent phenomenon for the Ivy Tech system, and they’re making great strides to expand that function, so this program is just a way for their colleges to let the general public know that Ivy Tech offers general education for baccalaureate transfer.”

Thomas R. Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College, agreed that Ivy Tech was “making a political statement without making a huge investment.”

“On one side, it’s good to have a diverse student body,” Bailey said. “Attracting students of a wide range of academic backgrounds benefits everyone. Having top-performing students attend benefits students with weaker academic backgrounds, raises the profile of the colleges, and improves their relationships with four-year colleges. It also probably provides some political benefits. Maybe it leads to more graduates who attended a community college who eventually become leaders in society.”

Still, Bailey noted there are those who could interpret Ivy Tech’s move critically.

“Some might argue that by focusing attention and resources on attracting stronger students, that also means attracting students who are better-off and don’t need the money,” Bailey said. “If that takes attention away from need-based scholarships ... then that would go against the basic mission of the college.”

Snyder said Ivy Tech will track how many valedictorians use the scholarship, their transfer habits and their demographic information. Katsinas and Bailey said only when this information is made available will Ivy Tech be able to determine if the merit awards truly helped promote the community college system to new groups of students.


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