Fewer Alaska students qualifying for or using state scholarship fund, review finds

East High graduate, Albert Timo, after receiving his diploma on Thursday, May 21, 2020 in Anchorage. (Hannah Lies)

A state funded scholarship designed to boost academic performance and college access in Alaska isn’t paying out as many scholarships as anticipated, according to a new review

The biggest barriers appear to be SAT/ACT test requirements and political and funding instability around the University of Alaska system.

The report analyzed use of the Alaska Performance Scholarship, which pays scholarship money to Alaskan students based on GPAs and standardized test scores, for the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education. Money for the scholarship comes from the state’s Higher Education Investment Fund, which was initially created by the Legislature with $400 million. 

Legislators expected the scholarship to give out more money over time when it was created in 2010. But after a few years of initial growth, its use has steadily declined, said Rebecca Braun, part of the research team that conducted the review of the APS. In 2019, she said, it paid out $9.4 million.

“If you look back at the legislative history, and when it passed, that’s less than half of what was anticipated as the annual payout,” she said.

Millions of dollars are not being used by Alaska students each year. In fact, the fund has never given out the $20.6 million in annual awards that it anticipated. 

According to the report, only 644 Alaska high school graduates used the scholarship in 2019, far fewer than the 2,305 students it was anticipated to serve each year.

The scholarship was designed to encourage students to achieve higher academically as well as encourage students to stay in Alaska for their post-secondary education. Alaska has struggled with both objectives. 

According to state data, 66% of Alaska’s 9th graders tested below or far below proficient in English language arts and 73% tested below or far below proficient in Math on the PEAKS assessment in 2019. And, the percentage of Alaska high school graduates enrolling in college has been on the decline since at least 2013 according to the ACPE. Just 44% of Alaska’s high school graduating class of 2019 enrolled full-time in college, well below the national average of 61%. 

The biggest barrier for Alaska students to qualify for the scholarship is SAT/ACT scores, Braun said. And the review found racial disparities in which students were eligible for the scholarship were also largely driven by the testing requirement. Less than 10% of Alaska Native students were eligible for the scholarship in 2019 compared to an average of 23% of all students statewide. 

“A lot of Alaska students, particularly in rural Alaska and in groups such as those who are first generation to go to college, have low awareness of the test. They may have barriers to access [to the test], not just paying the fees but in some cases finding a place that administers it,” Braun said. 

There was one outlier in the data: the graduating class of 2020. Eligibility for the scholarship for Alaska Native students increased by 159%, and increased by 60% for all students. This was the same year most colleges, and the scholarship program, waived SAT/ACT requirements due to the pandemic, further implicating standardized tests as a barrier to the scholarship money. 

Even though the scholarship can offer up to $4,755 to recipients per year, the review found when students do qualify for the scholarship some aren’t using it, in part because it comes in too late compared to other college’s financial aid offers. But also, some survey responses indicated that staying in Alaska is becoming less attractive to college-going students.

In 2019, thousands of students who received the APS were notified months before fall classes started that the money might not be available due to a legislative budget issue, although the funding was ultimately restored. Before that, lawmakers proposed cutting the scholarship fund entirely in 2017

More recently, the state’s major college option, the University of Alaska system, has been navigating through the final year of implementing a $70 million state funding cut, which resulted in cuts academic programs, proposed campus mergers and the proposed elimination of some sports teams. 

Read more: Alaska educators breathe sigh of relief as hundreds of millions of federal dollars roll in 

The scholarship can only be used at in-state institutions, but for some students it isn’t quite large enough to keep them in Alaska, especially those who have competing offers from other colleges, Braun said. 

“The state is going to have to do something different to achieve that objective of making the University of Alaska more attractive and keeping these students in state. But meantime, we’re losing the opportunity to help some of these rural students, first generation and underrepresented groups get to college. They are much more likely to use this scholarship if it’s offered to them.”

The review’s recommendations include getting rid of the standardized test requirements and simplifying eligibility. Because the scholarship program is written into law, Braun said any changes to the program would require legislative action.