Indiana’s New Career Scholarships Create Training Choice, Cut Student Costs

New career scholarships let high school students pick public or private career training, and can cover transportation, uniform and equipment costs.

This is a photo of two students working on a construction project.
Jayshaun Baity, a student in the ABC Construction Prep Academy in Marion, Indiana, has some help from fellow student Deven Bounds as they work on a storage building as part of class. Both are among the first beneficiaries of Indiana’s new Career Scholarship Accounts, which paid for the tools they’re using. (ABC Construction Prep Academy)

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A year ago, 12th grader Deven Bounds would have had to spend $1,000 or more of his own money on tools for his construction apprenticeship at Grant Regional Career Center in Marion, Indiana.

But new career scholarship accounts the state legislature created this spring have slashed costs for Bounds and students across Indiana in career training programs.

Bounds and 13 classmates at the ABC Construction Prep Academy are among 1,000 students statewide landing the new $5,000 scholarships from the state that pay for career training and extra expenses like the tool belts, hammers, squares, and eye guards — which used to be out-of-pocket costs for students.

“I feel like I would still be able to get stuff done (without the scholarship), but I definitely think it helps me with better tools,” Bounds said.

The state will spend about $5 million this school year on scholarships for the first 1,000 10th, 11th and 12th graders to win them, then $10 million next year for 2,000 students.

The scholarships are part of two large movements. Similar to “Education Savings Accounts” that have grown in more than a dozen states in recent years they allow students to attend private schools; and are also a major piece of Indiana’s mission of rethinking high school to provide much more career exposure and training to students.

Like Education Savings Accounts, which act like vouchers by giving money to families to use at schools they choose, the Career Scholarship Accounts give students state tax dollars to spend on job training from private training sites or from local public vocational schools.

State Rep. Chuck Goodrich, a sponsor of the bill that created the scholarships, said he hopes they will create more hands-on learning experiences for students and allow them to earn career credentials while still in high school.

“We want our students to graduate with not only a diploma, but also a credential, currency they can take with them,” he said.

Beyond letting students choose training sites, Goodrich and other elected Republicans hope business and other non-profit training programs will grow or be added, now that there is state money to pay for them. Industries could create their own training for skills they don’t think schools in the area are teaching enough of, then have the state pay for students to attend.

There are concerns, though, that the scholarships will simply funnel money to businesses, including Goodrich’s, to cover training that is otherwise just the cost of doing business.

But backers of the scholarships say they could also reduce the reliance of some small, non-profit pilot programs on donations to survive and may allow them to expand.

Goodrich said high schools, career technical education programs and private trainers are all valuable partners if the state is going to make training a common part of high school.

“We’re gonna need them all to get our folks skilled up,” he said.

One key way they can avoid just being a business subsidy is by offering direct help to students for needs such as uniforms, books, equipment like the tools for the Marion construction apprentices or transportation, in the form of transit passes or gas cards.

Those costs can prevent some students from learning job skills they want, said Jason Bearce, vice president of education and workforce development of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. The scholarships are a crucial “gap filler,” he said, that can wipe out barriers blocking low-income students from training to help their lives.

“Until these career scholarship accounts, I don’t believe there’s been specific state-supported funding that has ever had the kind of flexibility to be used for those types of expenditures,” Bearce said. “So that in itself is a big step forward.”

Republican State Sen. Brian Buchanan praised the scholarship proposal as it was debated this spring, saying businesses tell him constantly their primary need is for skilled employees.

“The lack of workers is one of the biggest challenges employers face,” Buchanan said. “This is trying to bridge that gap. It may not be perfect, but I certainly think this is a very good tool in the toolbox and the step forward.”

The program isn’t popular, however, with Career Technical Education centers around the state that already provide training for multiple fields as part of standard public high schools. They have questioned the need to pay private trainers to duplicate their efforts.

“We have never paid employers to hire or train our students,” said Steve Shaw, director of Blue River Career Programs, a training center for five high schools southeast of Indianapolis. “I have concerns about this provision…to pay third parties from tax dollar funds for educating high school students when it’s already been done successfully by Career Centers.”

There’s also confusion about which training providers should qualify, which expenses the scholarships could cover and what value students should receive from the money. The legislature left most of those details to the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, the state treasurer and Indiana Commission for Higher Education, which are still developing rules on the fly.

This fall, the state has started awarding scholarships on a limited basis to programs that have already been running training programs for students, like ABC Construction Prep Academy, which is run at several sites by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Indiana and Kentucky, or the Modern Youth Apprenticeship program being piloted in Indianapolis.

Josh Garrisson, chief of staff, of the state higher education commission, predicted in October that money this year would mostly be used for extra expenses students have, with some being used to grow programs so more students can participate.

But it’s not clear that’s happening. Attempts by The 74 to talk to students at several programs, beyond ABC that are using the scholarships, were rebuffed. Training programs said the scholarships are too new to know how the money will be spent and offered only vague promises that training will be enhanced.

The 74 also asked several programs to talk to students who are using their scholarships for transportation, but none could provide any. Some told The 74 students don’t even fully understand the scholarships that they applied for because they are so new.

Among the programs that could not provide clear answers on what added benefits students would receive was Gaylor Electric, an electrical contractor where Rep. Goodrich is CEO. The likely value of the scholarships to his company drew some controversy as the bill was debated. Goodrich said at the time that he did not consider whether his company would receive money when drafting the bill.

“We want kids educated,” he said when asked about the potential conflict during hearings. “We want kids career ready, and I think it takes private business to do that.”

State Rep. Bob Behning, chair of the house education committee, said the confusion and lack of clear gains for students so far “is something we’re going to have to continue to work through.” He said this first year, with limited numbers of providers and scholarships, is a “learning year.

“It’s going to be an opportunity for us to learn more and to come back and think about what we have to tweak,” he said. “I think by next year you’re gonna see a lot more robust offerings.”

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