New Diplomas Would Take the “Scholar” out of 21st Century

By State Rep. Earl Harris Jr. (D-East Chicago)

Earlier this year, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) presented a proposal to streamline Indiana’s high school diplomas. IDOE touted the flexibility of these revised diplomas, arguing that they would allow Hoosier students to achieve their unique goals. In truth, the diplomas would be refocused to be more tailored to funneling students toward specific jobs, cutting important core classes from the state curriculum to accommodate this shift.

According to the IDOE, students could pursue one of two degrees: the less-intensive GPS Diploma or the GPS Diploma Plus, which would require students to complete a “high-quality work-based learning experience.” Unfortunately, neither of these degrees necessarily provide students with the skills necessary for a successful transition into higher learning.

The backlash to the IDOE’s proposal was immediate. Both Hoosier parents and educators heavily criticized the exclusion of required core courses in world history, the arts and foreign languages and the cuts to previously required math and sciences classes. With these changes, many Hoosier students would be ineligible for both in and out-of-state college enrollment, as the minimum requirements for the new diplomas do not meet many of the standards colleges and universities require.

In a state with rapidly declining literacy ratesstagnant test scores and low college enrollment, the lack of care centered on our students’ academic success is appalling. While it is important that we prepare students to effectively navigate the working world, I find it deeply concerning that career-focused learning comes at the cost of traditional education that prepares students robustly for all the twists and turns their career might take. It is perfectly acceptable if a student wants to dive right into the workforce post-high school. College is not always the road for everyone. However, we must simultaneously provide a pathway for students who do wish to attend college.

During the 2023 legislative session, I authored a bill that became law to enroll eligible Hoosier students into the 21st Century Scholars program automatically. This two- or four-year scholarship covers full tuition at Indiana universities for low-income students. Previously, students needed to sign up in middle school; otherwise, they would never be considered eligible for the program. Unfortunately, this disqualified many who would have been otherwise eligible to receive these life-changing funds to pursue higher education. This barrier no longer exists, helping boost the number of Hoosier students who can go to college. The first cohort to be automatically enrolled in 21st Century Scholars exceeded 40,000 Hoosier students.

But this would all be for nothing if the subsequent schooling students receive makes them ineligible for college admittance. Anything we can do to help students achieve a college education should be our state’s priority. Instead, these new diplomas show a concerning trend away from scholarship in favor of plunging students directly into the workforce. Instead of thrusting undereducated students into the job market, we should incentivize students’ educational growth.

On June 5, the Indiana Department of Education held a board meeting where concerned teachers and parents gathered to share feedback on the proposed diplomas. I sincerely hope that the IDOE has taken note of the negative feedback and will make significant changes before the new diplomas go into effect. As of now, they are severely inadequate.

School is the time for kids to learn the skills and acquire the proficiencies needed to pursue higher-paying, more specialized jobs that succeed in the 21st century economy. When we support the pursuit of higher education, we are investing in Indiana’s future. The IDOE’s new diploma requirements invest less in students. By requiring less of students academically, IDOE is setting these students and our state for a less promising, less prosperous future.