Not a good sign for Alaska's future

Fewer Alaska high school graduates are qualifying for the state’s largest scholarship program; fewer who would qualify are bothering to participate in the program which requires that they attend college in Alaska; and more students who attend college out of state are choosing to set up their life outside Alaska.

The numbers are not encouraging, unless you run a college in the Lower 48 that wants to attract more Alaskans.

While elected officials debate the amount of the annual Permanent Fund dividend, who is tougher on crime, who is more supportive of resource development and which party is a stronger defender of the state’s rights against the federal government, our students and the university system suffer. And the future looks worse.

The Alaska Department of Labor has been tracking graduates of the high school classes of 2005, and released its most recent report last month. Of the graduates who earned two- or four-year college degrees in Alaska, 55% were still in the state in 2021, according to the findings. But for those who earned their degrees outside of Alaska, only 25% were living in the state by 2021, according to the report.

Which indicates we need to keep more Alaska high school graduates in the state — once they leave, they are more likely not to return. That’s a bad statistic for a state that has lost more residents than it has gained 10 years running.

Yet the vast majority of high school students eligible for the Alaska Performance Scholarship, which requires them to study in-state, are choosing to go Outside, according to a report from the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.

About $100 million has been distributed to more than 29,000 students under the scholarship, which was created in 2011 to encourage high school students to excel and stay in the state. Recipients can use the money to study at the University of Alaska or elsewhere in the state, including the Alaska Vocational Technical Center.

But even with the offer of scholarships, fewer students are choosing to sign up. The Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education report found a record-low 22% of eligible students chose to use the scholarship in 2022, dropping from a high of 39% in 2016.

The commission found budget cuts to the University of Alaska — largely imposed during Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s first year in office in 2019 — had made it less attractive for students to enroll at the school. As if uncertainty over degree and course offerings were not enough of a turn-off, a budget decision by the governor in 2019 jeopardized the scholarship funding itself, until the Legislature established a new, secure scholarship account last year.

Adding to the problem, the number of students even eligible for the scholarship has been in decline. A record-low 17% of graduating Alaska students were academically eligible for the award last year — half of what it was in 2014.

No doubt Alaska students can do better to qualify for the scholarships, but the state — its elected leaders and residents — also must do better with funding and committed support to our schools and the university system. Otherwise, the outmigration from Alaska will get worse.

— Wrangell Sentinel

 

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