The Star is right to focus on the importance of funding Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program (“Dig deep for dollars for scholars,” Sept. 7). The fund is important to help reduce the dropout rate and increase the state’s high school graduation rate, especially for low-income students.

But increasing state funding of the program is only part of the solution. To radically improve the high school graduation rate and college-bound success rate, we must engage students earlier in their academic careers. All Indiana high schools should start using their current dollars to enroll students into real college courses as early as 10th grade.

The biggest drop in high school enrollment statewide occurs between 10th and 11th grades, and the dropout number is highest among low-income families. Many low-income families we serve come to us not knowing or ignoring the value of a high school degree, much less a college degree, and to the extent they do understand it, many don’t believe they are college material. So why should their students finish high school? Yes, I’ve had parents ask me that question.

To remedy this, all high schools — or at least those with high numbers of students from low-income families — need to start showing their students that they can indeed take college classes and be successful. Every eligible student at Fall Creek Academy is signed up for the 21st Century Scholars program, but that doesn’t mean they have to wait to graduate from high school to start their college career with 21st Century Scholars money.

Fall Creek Academy, one of a handful of “early college” high schools in the state, starts sending many students to college when they are in 10th grade. The school spent nearly $50,000 of its state-provided K-12 tuition support money to pay for more than 50 high school students — all of whom qualify for the 21st Century Scholars program — to take courses that counted for both high school and college credit. These are earned credits that won’t need to be paid for by 21st Century Scholars funds. Imagine the financial impact if every high school did this. In the future, Fall Creek Academy students will earn their high school degrees and as many as 60 college credits. Last year’s 17 graduates of Fall Creek Academy earned more than $320,000 in scholarship funds outside of the 21st Century Scholars program.

Why should high schools duplicate a class with state dollars when a similar class is offered at the college level and counts for both high school and college credit? Imagine the impact on college mentoring programs if high schools were to go beyond signing up students to participate in the 21st Century Scholars program and actually start funding students to take college-level classes and supporting the students while they take the classes. This would change the conversation between mentors and students. It would give students who are thinking of dropping out of high school the experience in college they need and a reason to finish high school. And the dual credits allow students to graduate from high school early, too.

So, yes, continue to fund the 21st Century Scholars program, but all high schools can be a big part of the solution, too.

By Kevin Teasley, published by Indianapolis Star