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INDIANAPOLIS — Leroy Medrano never pictured himself going to college.

“It was kind of more of a dream, maybe even a fantasy if you will,” he said.

He’s now a graduate of Purdue University, where he’s also in grad school.

“My parents didn’t finish high school, and so even that alone was an achievement for myself,” said Medrano, “and then going to university, at a place like Purdue, it really is a dream come true.”

Medrano, who is studying audiology, never imagined a path like this. Coming from a low-income household, he says money was a huge barrier, especially when it came to considering college.

“I know my mother wanted to do everything she could for me, but even with her best and beyond that, I knew that she wouldn’t be able to send me to go to university,” he said.

It wasn’t until middle school when Medrano would first hear about the 21st Century Scholars Program, an opportunity that would later pave the way to Purdue.

Stories, like Medrano’s, are what the Indiana Commission for Higher Education hopes will help bring more attention to the impact of being a 21st Century Scholar.

“Sometimes we’re not the right messengers,” said Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers. “Sometimes the idea that higher education or government is delivering the message, they need someone closer to them. They need someone who is already a scholar, who said ‘I did that’. They need someone at their church to tell them ‘Hey, you can take advantage of this program’.”

It’s part of the commission’s plan to broaden the message, and who’s delivering it, to bring in more eligible families. Out of the roughly 40% of families who qualify, Lubbers says only half actually enroll for the program, according to the commission’s latest report.

“You can’t reap the benefits of the 21st Century Scholars Program if you don’t sign up to be a scholar. That’s our biggest challenge,” Lubbers said, “and then I think, once we’re there, we need to make sure once they sign up that they meet all of the expectations that are there.”

The expectations start with a promise as early as 7th and 8th grade. Eligible students commit to completing a series of requirements throughout high school and college, like maintaining a 2.5 GPA, earning at least a Core 40 Diploma and fulfilling a series of scholar-specific programs.

Through these tasks, it motivates students to not only get, but keep their scholarship, which includes up to 4 years of free tuition at a participating college or university in the state.

Lubbers says once students and families know that college is affordable, it unlocks a new realm of opportunities.

“We know the big challenge and obstacle for a lot of Hoosier students and families is that they think it’s not affordable for them, and when they know it is, and when they’re prepared, they’re going,” Lubbers said.

The numbers are also reflecting that. Numbers, from the commission, show about 88% of qualifying Scholars are going to college right after high school, which is higher than the state’s average of nearly 60%.

Compared to their low-income peers, commission numbers also show Scholars are more likely to graduate college on time as completion rates are 17% higher.

“We’re really trying to work with alums of the 21st Century Scholars program, who say you know, ‘I looked a lot like you and I was a scholar, and I went on and this is what I received and this is where I am in life right now’. So that there doesn’t seem to be this disconnect, or sense of delayed gratification,” said Lubbers.

Along with tapping into alums, Lubbers says they’re working to strengthen partnerships with schools, community groups and organizations and continue with more outreach to get families on board.

Medrano, who is close to finishing up his first year of grad school, says it’s allowed him to unlock possibilities he didn’t know he had. That’s why he’s sharing his story, so other families can do the same for themselves.

“Going to school, middle school and high school, having a teacher or someone that’s older with experiences just believing in you and just taking the time to be a little bit of a mentor is a huge component,” he said.

“When I first heard about the 21st Century program, I still wasn’t even considering going to college, and it wasn’t until one teacher told my mother that she could see me going to college and I never thought that. Just that impact alone, that little conversation this teacher had with my mother, really just got me thinking like ‘oh, maybe I can go’.” he added.