The vast majority of Alaska high-schoolers eligible for college scholarships that require them to study in-state are choosing to go Outside, according to a new report from the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.
The Alaska Performance Scholarship was first established in 2011 to encourage high school students to excel and stay in Alaska. Roughly $100 million in scholarships have been distributed since then to a just over 29,000 students.
The merit-based program has three tiers, the highest paying $4,755 per year to the highest achieving students. Recipients can use the scholarship to study at the University of Alaska or at other institutions, including the Alaska Vocational Technical Center.
But fewer students are choosing to use the scholarship to study in Alaska. The Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education recently released a report that found a record-low 22% of eligible students chose to use the scholarship in 2022, dropping from a high of 39% in 2016.
“We’re consciously working on bringing that number up to 50 (percent),” said Pat Pitney, president of the University of Alaska.
The vast majority of those surveyed wanted to study outside Alaska or had already accepted an offer to study out of state.
The commission found budget cuts to the University of Alaska had made it less attractive and so had uncertainty around the state fund used to pay for the scholarships. The Legislature established a new, secure college scholarship fund last year and university administrators have tried to stabilize the system’s budget.
“Alaska students need to know that the programs and opportunities UAF, UAA, and UAS provide will be there when they graduate high school, and that they will be accessible and affordable as well,” said Paul Layer, vice president for academics, students and research at the University of Alaska.
There is evidence the scholarship has helped keep young people in Alaska during a period of high outmigration. The Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education found 73% of high-school students who graduated in 2014 and received the scholarship were still living in Alaska eight years later.
But the number of students eligible for the scholarship has been falling. A record-low 17% of graduating Alaska students were eligible for the award in 2022 — half of what it was in 2014.
”This is concerning to us,” said Sana Efird, executive director of the commission.
Eligibility for the scholarship is based on grade point averages, results from standardized testing and a curriculum that often sees students start “rigorous academic coursework” in the ninth grade, Efird said. Alaska students have regularly ranked in the bottom of the nation for math and English assessments.
Efird said there are multiple reasons why fewer Alaska students were eligible for the scholarship. Some do not have access to the curriculum to qualify, others don’t have guidance counselors at their schools to help them. Some students, particularly in rural Alaska, need to travel for testing.
There are urban-rural divides and disparities in eligibility by region and ethnicity: 6% of Alaska Native students were eligible for the scholarship in 2022 compared to 23% of white students.
Standardized testing requirements were temporarily waived In 2020 and 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eligibility rates for the scholarship rose to their highest-ever levels and the number of eligible Alaska Native students shot up by 159%.
When standardized testing was reinstated, eligibility rates plummeted for Alaska Native students and dropped for all other students to their lowest level yet. Efird said there was confusion among some applicants over the shifting rules, which are set in statute.
There have been calls for reform after a 2021 report prepared by the McDowell Group found structural problems with the scholarship: Students get the award after they graduate, but many already have made college decisions in their junior year. Others don’t learn about it until it’s too late or that they need to also apply for federal student aid to qualify.
Juneau Democratic Rep. Andi Story, who sits on the commission, introduced legislation last year to “modernize” the scholarship following the report’s recommendations. Her bill would drop the standardized testing requirements and allow students to use career and technical education to qualify.
The average tuition at the University of Alaska has risen to $9,800 per year, but the scholarship has not kept pace. Story’s bill would see all three tiers increase and the maximum award would be $7,000 per year. If approved, an estimated extra $3.5 million per year would be drawn from the newly reestablished $347-million college scholarship fund.
Story’s bill stalled in the House last year. She has introduced it again and is optimistic it could pass — particularly during broader debates about school funding and how to get more Alaska kids into postsecondary education.