Alaska hands out nearly $3 million in merit scholarships

Becky BohrerAssociated Press

JUNEAU -- The state awarded about $3 million in merit scholarships this year, less than earlier expected under a program championed by Gov. Sean Parnell.

The Legislature earlier this year approved $6 million for the program and the governor's office had anticipated about $4 million would be awarded.

Recently released figures show that of the 2,364 students who qualified for the aid, just 870 accepted it. That figure includes public and non-public school students, such as those who were home-schooled or attended private schools.

Shari Paul, coordinator for the Alaska Performance Scholarship program, called it a "great start," given the short time frame the state had to get out word of the program and given questions about its fate. She said it appears on par with the similar programs in other states, which eventually grew.

Alaska lawmakers set up the framework for the program last year but there was uncertainty about how or whether it would be funded. Those questions persisted throughout much of the last legislative session. Lawmakers finally agreed to include $6 million in the budget bill that passed in May.

The program also requires that the aid be used at Alaska schools, another likely factor in the number of students who accepted aid, Paul said.

The scholarship program provides students with up to $4,755 a year toward their college or career and technical educations. About three dozen institutions -- from universities and community colleges to barber, Bible and trade schools -- participate in the program.

The majority of students receiving scholarships are attending either the University of Alaska Anchorage or the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the statistics show.

Parnell has called scholarships key to raising expectations for students and helping to transform a state education system marred by lackluster graduation rates, truancy and dropouts. Students who complete a set curriculum with at least a C-plus average can qualify.

He is seeking $8 million for the program in his budget plan for next fiscal year. He has also pushed for a $400 million set-aside from which earnings would be used to pay for future scholarships.

Paul said interest in the program has been strong and she hopes to see an increase in the number of students accepting aid next year.

Associated Press