ANCHORAGE - When Mark Hamilton headed north in 1998 to be University of Alaska president he found that most college-bound Alaskans were heading south.
Just 44 percent of Alaska's high school graduates chose to attend college that year, and only 48 percent of those students chose public higher education in their home state, the lowest percentage in America. In the rest of the country, 67 percent of college-bound students stayed in their home states to attend a public university.
Hamilton found a way to slow the brain drain - pay the brightest to stay.
Now in its fifth year, the University of Alaska Scholars Program offers $11,000 scholarships to the top 10 percent of the graduates from Alaska high schools. That works out to be $1,375 for eight semesters, roughly the cost of tuition for an undergraduate.
Hamilton said it's been a good investment.
"We both want and deserve the opportunity to educate the people of this state," he said.
Alaska is geographically separated from the rest of the country and jumping on jets for travel to other states becomes a way of life. Many parents wanted their children to sample life in other regions and were eager to send them south for college. Hamilton was disheartened to learn that they weren't even considering their home-state university.
With Alaska's public schools budgeted at about $1 billion annually, the state was spending a considerable amount to make kids smarter for export to other states, Hamilton said. He talked to parents who were surprised to find out the UA system had faculty from Ivy League schools and other prestigious institutions.
He'd hear, "'You know, before my child got that scholarship, I never knew that about the University of Alaska.' That just rips your heart out," he said.
Other states have offered scholarships based on grade point average. The UA program is the only one he's aware of that's paid for by the university without state dollars. The money comes from its land endowment earnings.
The scholarship program has made parents at least take of whiff of what's offered at home.
"When you offer $11,000, suddenly parents require a little investigation of this," Hamilton said. "They have to take the time."
It also created a buzz among high school students, who began to pay attention to their academic standing, Hamilton said.
Scholarships go to high school students based on their standing at the end of the junior year. They receive a letter from the university informing them they have up to six years to use the money, which means they can travel or even try college in another state for a year before committing to a UA program.
Participants return to their cities and villages and become the best kind of advertising, Hamilton said.
"These people will become credible, academic emissaries," he said.
The university, with an enrollment of about 33,000 full- and part-time students, has major campuses in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau and branch campuses in 13 other locations.
Hamilton credits the program for not only drawing more students to UA campuses, but also sending more students to college. Today, 50 percent of Alaska's high school graduates attend college and the UA system gets 50 percent of them - a net gain of nearly 500 students.
Jaedon Avery, 21, a graduate of West High School in Anchorage, remembers getting a piece of paper in the mail identifying him as eligible for the scholars program. School counselors urged him to apply even though he intended to study engineering at one of three out-of-state schools. Two schools offered him money but he chose UA Fairbanks.
"I still would have had to pay five times as much to go to those other schools," he said.
Tuition has increased and his scholarship doesn't cover all his costs, but he will graduate in May without taking out a loan. A psychology major, he was even able to take part in an exchange program in Nebraska.
Amy Peterson, 20, graduated from Grace Christian High School in Anchorage and planned to attend Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. The chance to leave college debt-free figured in her decision to attend UA Anchorage.
"I don't think I would have," she said. "That was the deal maker."
As a high school student she was told she would have to leave Alaska to have a "college experience." She has found that at UAA, she said.
"The college experience is what you make of it," she said. "I'm involved with so many things. The professors are awesome. There are so many things to get involved in, all the clubs."
Her parents also figured into the decision.
"My dad didn't want me to get out of school with $80,000 in loans. It's insane now much money it is."
Hamilton said he's pleased with the program, but there's another benefit.
"We did not offer this to the top 10 percent of high school graduates," he said. "We offered this to the top 10 percent of graduates by high school."
Doing so presents a remarkable opportunity for diversity.
"I want the brightest kids of every single region in the state, of every culture in the state," he said.
The university is getting a mix of scholars who might not meet otherwise.
"We have the opportunity for individuals to interact with each other at the scholastic level, at the dorm level, eating lunch together, to get to know one another," he said.
Fifteen to 20 years from now, UA graduates from diverse backgrounds may be sitting across a table, solving state problems on the basis of knowing and trusting the person. The scholars program will allow interaction to dispel myths that separate people.
"We have the opportunity for solving some of the seemingly intractable issues in the state," he said. "They're going to do it because you just trust somebody that you know."
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