Barriers to learning that hurt students of color across the nation present both a crisis and an opportunity. In Indianapolis, a diverse and dedicated partnership of leaders is collaborating to solve this.

For the past year, Business Equity for Indy, a joint effort of Indiana businesses, educators, and community organizations, including Lumina Foundation, has been working to nurture a more inclusive business climate and create more significant economic and educational opportunities for people of color.

Each of us focuses on one of five pillars ranging from health to hiring. Lumina is part of the Learning and Talent Taskforce, aimed at helping people learn and earn beyond high school. The trends aren’t positive: this fall, Indiana saw a 2.6 percent drop in degree-seeking students at public universities, bringing our five-year drop in enrollment to 10.4 percent. The largest declines in colleges and universities awarding degrees were among Black students.

A new BEI report shows that Marion County is failing to serve Black residents, leading to lower wages earned one, three, and five years after graduation. These setbacks worsened as COVID-19 hit black families the hardest.

These losses hurt our neighbors and businesses that struggle to find the diverse, expert talent needed to fill jobs. Our report suggests ways Indiana policymakers, employers, and educators can make meaningful changes for people of color, including our rapidly growing Hispanic population. They include:

  • FAFSA completion: Make it mandatory for all high school students to complete their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) applications. Completing these forms would unlock about $65 million in financial aid that many Hoosier students are unaware of.
  • 529 tax credit: Create a tax credit for employers making direct contributions to 529 college savings plans for employees’ children. At least seven other states use tax breaks in this way.
  • Support for urgent needs: Increase funding for first-generation college students for urgent needs such as housing and food, childcare, transportation, and internet access.
  • Track and stack credentials:
    • Track and annually report degree outcomes and median wages tied to certificates and other credentials to the public. Ensure the data are disaggregated by race, gender, socioeconomic status, and type of credential.
    • Expand state financial aid and training funds for short-term credentials leading to high-demand jobs. Both Virginia and Iowa provide strong examples.
    • Support stackable credentials that allow high school certifications to count for college. Seventeen states now fund colleges to develop these pathways.

These proposals hold promise for improving academic outcomes. We already see progress in programs such as Modern Apprenticeship, which helps Central Indiana students train in high-demand fields, such as advanced manufacturing, while still in high school.

We have a good start as we innovate, implement, and invest in solutions. But systemic racism requires all of us working together to produce fair and just outcomes for every student.

As business leaders and human beings, we are committed to racial equity and ensuring that everyone—here at home in Indianapolis and far beyond—can learn, earn and contribute their talents to a better world.

[Courtney Brown, Ph.D., is vice president of impact and planning at Lumina Foundation. Brown oversees Lumina’s strategic planning, impact, and effectiveness and leads international engagement.]

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