UA Scholars Program too successful

Ballooning enrollment in the University of Alaska Scholars Program has the university touting its success and looking for a way to pay for it.

The UA Scholars Program began in 1999 as a way to draw more Alaska students to the university. The program offers an $11,000 scholarship to any Alaska student who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her class.

This year, UA is paying out scholarships for 1,066 students at a cost of $2.8 million. Next year, the cost will rise to $3.2 million, Pat Pitney, director of budget and institutional research for UA statewide, said.

However, UA can only afford to pay $2 million per year over the long term, Pitney said. The university’s Natural Resources Fund pays for the UA Scholars awards. That is not part of General Fund money provided by the state.

“Right now we’re essentially forward-funding,” Pitney said. “We’re forgoing other items in the fund until we can find another way to pay for it.”

The UA Scholars Program cost rose in its four years from $734,000 in its first year to $2.8 million for this year.

“That used 100 percent of the Natural Resources Fund,” Paul Jenny, associate director of budget and institutional research, said. “And in fiscal year 2003, there’s $800,000 that will have to be shared by the campuses.”

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The Natural Resources Fund, paid for with land grant money, was not supposed to support the UA Scholars for the long term according to Ann Ringstad, director of government relations for UA.

“The hope was that the state would see the merits of the program and pick it up,” Ringstad said.

But legislation to fund the program has so far failed in the state Legislature.

“There was legislation in the last couple years to appropriate money for it, but the legislature never saw fit to pass it,” Ringstad said. “They all support it; they just didn’t know where they would get the money.”

There’s hope that Alaska’s next governor will bail the program out, if one of the two leading candidates is elected. Ringstad said Sen. Frank Murkowski has proposed the state pay for the first two years of a student’s scholarship while the university covers the second two. Murkowski also wants to expand UA Scholar eligibility to the top 15 percent of high school graduates.

Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer would probably support paying for the entire program with state funds, Ringstad said.

The UA Scholars award’s popularity is due in part to its flexibility. Students can use the award at any UA campus and can transfer among campuses without affecting the award. Even if recipients have other scholarships covering their university bills, they can use the money for transportation and housing.

Maggie Duhearst was one of the students who received the award in its first year and is now a senior at UAA. Because she had already won a four-year tuition waiver, she was able to use the award to pay for housing during her stay at the University of Washington honors program. Students may use the award at other universities that have student exchange programs with UA.

University President Mark Hamilton created the UA Scholars Program and is still its leading advocate. Ringstad said he is committed to continuing the program despite the cost.

“He wants to pay for it regardless,” Ringstad said. “The president has said the program will go on.”

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