Alaska editorial: State should ensure good students can afford education

Posted: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hammered markets make this a rough time for endowments, but state Sen. Johnny Ellis has the right idea in trying to create one for hard-working Alaskans who want more education after high school.

Not all Alaskans can afford to pursue undergraduate degrees, advanced vocational studies or technical training. And that's particularly galling for those who have done well in school but still come up short on the financial end.

The state doesn't help much. A report card by the National Institute for Public Policy and Higher Education gives Alaska an F in affordability.

Granted the same report card flunked every state in the Union for affordability except California. But by one common yardstick - comparing state expenditures on financial aid to federal Pell Grants -- Alaska founders near the bottom.

California spends 56 cents for every dollar of Pell Grant aid. Nevada spends 48 cents. Oregon, 24 cents.

Alaska spends six cents.

We're arguably one of the richest states in the country. But at six cents on the dollar we're not one of the smartest, and we might not stay rich.

The University of Alaska offers the UA Scholars Program, whereby the top 10 percent of Alaska's high school graduates qualify for $11,000 in scholarships to help cover costs of a UA education. That's a great help.

But Sen. Ellis' Alaska Achievers Incentive Scholarship Program would cast a wider net. Students with at least a 3.0 average, or its equivalent, and have unmet financial needs would qualify for scholarships. They could get at least $1,000 and up to $20,000 over five years. Students with the greatest needs would have priority.

And the program wouldn't be limited to the university, but to any certified postsecondary education - Career Academy in Anchorage and the Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward, for example.

The idea is that whether Alaskans want to be pilots or poets, cooks or counselors, teachers or techies, they should have the means to get the schooling they need.

In addition to the 3.0 high-school average, students would have to maintain a 2.5 average or equivalent in whatever higher education they pursued to keep the aid.

Sen. Ellis' bill appropriates no money. Ellis aide Nick Moe said the first goal is to establish the endowment, then figure out how to seed it. He said the Alaska Postsecondary Education Commission suggests a $100 million start. That's ambitious in this economic climate. But Moe said the endowment may be able to tap federal stimulus money for higher education. Both private and public money could be used. The bill would authorize the state to take up to 5 percent of the endowment's value each year for scholarships.

At whatever level Alaska can manage, the achievers program looks good. Students with good grades but modest means will still be able to afford school; good work wins its reward. Students will graduate with a lighter loan-debt burden. And Alaska will be blessed with smarter citizens, better workers and a stronger economy. This bill should pass.

Bottom line: Want to invest in Alaska? Make sure good students can afford higher education and technical training.

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