Needs-based grants lowest for Alaskan students

The amount of low-income students attending college in Alaska is 7.9 percent.

It’s the lowest in the nation and has been for the last 13 years.

The latest findings, published by the Postsecondary Education Opportunity in Feb. 2008, are no surprise to students and University officials who have been lobbying the legislature for years to improve the amount of needs-based grants awarded in the state.

Right now, there is only about $600,000 worth of grants available for low-income students looking for college and vocational school opportunities according to Stephanie Butler, Director of Operations for the Alaska Commission on Post Secondary Education. That works out to about $1,000 to $2,000 per qualified student per year.

The average cost of tuition for a full-time Alaska resident at the University of Alaska for the 2008-09 academic year: $4,275.
Currently the legislature is looking at Gov. Sean Parnell’s Governor’s Performance Scholarship that was introduced in October. While the program was initially proposed as a merit-based scholarship, advocates are asking legislatures to include a needs-based component as well.

But it’s not a new fight. People across the University and the state have been pushing for years. With the support of the governor and scholarships on the minds of legislators, the push is now even stronger.

Needs-based in-flux

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Alaska had a needs-based program 30 years ago called the State Student Incentive Grant, but after the oil markets crash in the 80s, the state issued budget retractions. Funding for the SSIG was cut.

There was no needs-based grant program until 2005 when the state was required, under the federal Leveraging Education Assistance Program, to match the federal funds available for need-based aid. The Alaska Student Loan Corporation decided to not just match the $40,000 in federal funds, but overmatch it by $500,000, in essence, reinstating the SSIG under the new name of the Alaska Advantage Grant Program.

On average, that makes about $600,000 available to qualified students. Because the amount of money that comes in fluxuates,, the amount of needs-based scholarships available changes from year to year. Butler said that some years there are more; some years there are less.

Last year, former Gov. Sarah Palin approved $2.5 million in general funds to fund the grant program. According to Butler, the money will expire after the 2010-2011 academic year.

Unless more funds are found, it is possible the program could go unfunded. It may also be difficult for the Alaska Student Loan Corporation to continue matching the LEAP dollars.

“We cannot guarantee in the current fiscal environment that the student loan corporation will be able to do that on an ongoing basis,” Butler said.

UA and the need

Right now there is already a merit-based scholarship program available through the UA scholars program.

Set up by President Mark Hamilton in 1999, the program offers an $11,000 scholarship to Alaska high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class.

University of Alaska spokeswoman Kate Ripley said that it’s unusual that a university president would set up such a program.  She said that often the University is accused of not providing enough needs-based scholarships, but that it’s not a University issue, it’s a state issue.

“Most Universities aren’t that ones that set up the financial aid,” Ripley said. “Those are public policy issues that the states decide.”

With the debate over the GPS including a needs-based component, the debate over needs based grants has increased.

“It’s something as a society we set up. It’s a question to ask the public policy holders. We need a lot more,” Ripley said. “It sometimes falls on deaf ears. It seems like it has some traction now.”

Long time coming

Ryan Buchholdt has been trying to get more needs-based grants available to students for the last three years.

A USUAA senator, he said he had a desire to make college more accessible for those living in poverty. He started doing research and was shocked with what he found. Despite the state having a constitution that mandates a strong public education system including a strong university system, there’s a disconnect.

“This state doesn’t like spending a lot of money on giving people the opportunity for access to education,” Buchholdt said.

He said that because scholarship and grant programs don’t have an immediate pay off – unlike the construction of a new building – lawmakers seem less interested in spending.

“You know, you invest money in a student and it’s going to be four, six years before you see a return in that investment,” Buchholdt said. “It still takes them a couple years in the workforce to generate it back. I don’t think people look that far out.”

Looking forward

When Parnell introduced the scholarship, he and other legislators have cited other merit-based plans around the country.

Currently there are 22 other states with some sort of scholarship plan.

Buchholdt, a junior dual global logistics management and business management major, researched the different plans. He found that of the 22 cited, 14 offer a needs-based component included alongside the merit based part.

As a USUAA senator, Buchholdt said that students ask him about increasing taxation – the rising cost of tuition, of books, of student fees. He said they often don’t look at the other side of that – how to pay for it. Something that needs based scholarships can assist with.

“They help fill the gaps created by that rising tuition,” Buchholdt said. “More students come up, but it definitely doesn’t jump to the forefront of the mind.”