Indiana has created an amazing opportunity for the two million Hoosiers without a college credential to upskill for free, but so far, participation has been a disappointment.

The Next Level Jobs/Workforce Ready Grant program rolled out by the Governor in August 2017 pays 100% of the tuition and fees for under-educated adults to obtain a certificate in a high-demand, high-wage occupation.

But only 123 Workforce Ready Grants were awarded to students to attend Ivy Tech Community College in fall 2017. The number doubled to just 248 in the spring.

The conventional wisdom suggests that the dismal participation is due to the strong economy. With an unemployment rate barely above three percent and the number of job openings exceeding the number of people looking for work, it’s difficult to motivate working-age adults to enroll in college, even when you tell them it’s free.

Yet first-year demand for Tennessee’s new adult promise program was off the charts.

Part of the challenge here is that under-educated Hoosiers are more skeptical than most about the value of higher education.

Preliminary findings from the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey show only 41% of Hoosiers whose highest level of education is a high school diploma believe they need additional education to advance in their careers, compared to 50% of all Americans without a high school diploma.

The Next Level Jobs/Workforce Ready Grant covers about 130 certificate programs at Ivy Tech Community College and Vincennes University that lead to high-wage, high-demand employment in five priority economic sectors: advanced manufacturing, building and construction, health and life sciences, IT and business services, and transportation and logistics. The state budget appropriated $2 million annually for the scholarship program.

Eligibility was initially limited to adults age 24 and up, but the program was expanded in 2018 to the traditional college-going population of 18- to 24-year olds. Recipients must have a high school diploma or its equivalent and must not have previously received a college credential.

The Holcomb Administration contends that 85,000 jobs are going unfilled because Indiana employers are unable to find skilled labor and that one million job vacancies are expected over the next 10 years as the Baby Boomer generation retires.