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Alaska editorial: Make more money available for students to attend college

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Not everything in the state's bloated capital budget ranks as pork. As an example of smart money, the $2.5 million in grants so Alaska's poorest students can afford college is hard to beat.

And it's about time.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, was the driving force behind this money, which will lift Alaska from the bottom of the national list in needs-based financial aid for its students.

In 2006, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gave Alaska an "F" in making higher education more affordable for poorer students.

That's a sorry grade for arguably the wealthiest state in the union.

In Alaska, as nationwide, college costs continue to rise, claiming more and more of families' incomes, pricing some students right out of school.

To be fair, Alaska historically hasn't left its students bereft. A generous student loan program and the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend have helped to pay for the education of thousands. And Alaska hasn't had the time other states have had to build a tradition of grants and other aid helping low-income students attend college.

But the facts are clear. Alaska is rich. There's no reason we can't provide more help for students in need.

Right now, the Alaska Advantage Education Grants program helps almost 700 students. They get yearly grants ranging from $500 for part-time students to $2,000 for students who are in fields where more workers are needed or who have good scores on academic aptitude tests. The amounts aren't all that large, but University of Alaska tuition averages $4,200 for a full-time undergraduate, so these grants matter. The money comes from Alaska Student Loan Corporation interest funds and a federal match.

It's not enough. More than 3,000 students qualify for low-income aid, according to Diane Barrans, director of the Alaska Commission on Post-Secondary Education.

If the $2.5 million survives the governor's veto - and it should - Barrans said the commission would spend about $1 million in the first year to award 800 to 900 more students with grants. That's a big gain. Right now the commission rightly helps the poorest students first. With more money, Barrans said state grants would be available to students from families who make almost $40,000 annual income. That's needed help. Forty-thousand dollars is not a lot of money if you're trying to squeeze a child's college education into your budget.

And these are what Barrans called "last-dollar grants." Students are expected to exhaust other grants and scholarships before qualifying for

Critics might quibble that this money doesn't belong in the capital budget. It's an operating budget expense. They're right. But what's more important now is to get the money out there to help students go to school. Where this money shows up in the budget is a housekeeping matter; what the money does is educate Alaskans. It deserves to be in the state budget this year and in future years. It's a great investment for both individual Alaskans and the common good.



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