Investment worth making

Scholarship invests in Alaska's most prized resource

Posted: Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Since becoming governor, I have spoken to many groups about my top priority: positioning Alaska's economy for growth and our children and families for opportunity. As Alaskans, we are blessed with resources in abundance - fish and game, minerals, gas and oil, and water. I'm optimistic about the many prospects we have to safely develop these natural resources, and I'm working hard to pursue every opportunity.

But one abundant Alaska resource cries out for our attention - our human resources, specifically our young people.

More than a third of our youth - 34 percent - don't graduate from high school. And many of the students who do graduate are entering college or the work force unprepared. The University of Alaska has to put 65 percent of entering students through remedial courses. This is not acceptable.

It's not just about the benefit to students, though that interest is significant. It's about Alaska's future. Economic opportunity and education are inextricably linked. As Alaska's well-educated baby boomers retire, we must replace them with a well-educated workforce. Our families and our economic future depend upon it.

It's not enough to have the prospect of a gas pipeline or other new investments by industry. Without the education and training required to prepare Alaskans for desirable careers, Alaska's future is in jeopardy.

The threat is real, and we need to take it seriously. Providing youth the opportunity and incentive to earn their way to college or job training is the key to overcoming that threat. The time is now. We must take action.

So how do we ensure that Alaska's students are prepared for the future? Through brain power. We've got to find a way to harness it, and we've got to find a way to keep it in Alaska.

That is the idea behind the Governor's Performance Scholarship, or GPS. The GPS is a major education policy initiative I recently announced that will help students navigate their way to success. The scholarship program will allow eligible Alaska high school students to earn tuition scholarships for state universities and certain job-training programs in Alaska. To qualify, students will be required to achieve certain grade-point averages and pass a rigorous high school curriculum, including four years of math, four years of science, four years of language arts and three years of social studies.

The plan incentivizes students to strive for excellence by rewarding them with more scholarship money as grades improve. Students who complete this more rigorous curriculum with a C+ average will earn a scholarship equal to 50 percent of their in-state tuition. Students with a B average will get 75 percent paid, and students who complete this more rigorous curriculum with an A average will get 100 percent of their in-state university or job-training program paid.

Similar programs have been successful in 22 other states. With merit scholarships, more students graduate from high school; more go on to post-secondary education and they go prepared; more successfully complete college or job training, and they do it sooner; and more parents are involved in their students' education and career path. The next generation will learn that with initiative, diligence and hard work, opportunities abound.

And we'll pay for GPS in a responsible and sustainable way that will not place an endless burden on the state's operating budget.

Not counting the Alaska Permanent Fund, the state has about $8 billion in savings. I'm asking the Legislature to fence off $400 million of that $8 billion, to invest it and to use the earnings to pay for these scholarships. Thirty years from now, the state will still have the $400 million in savings, but we'll also have a better-prepared, better-trained workforce. I think you'll agree - Alaska's youth are worth it.

• Sean Parnell is governor of Alaska.

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