Dueling scholarships: will you benefit?

By Tom Hewitt
Sun Star Reporter

For over a decade, the only state-based aid available to University of Alaska students has been the UA Scholars program, which provides tuition money for Alaska high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class. This year, however, the state legislature is debating a pair of proposals that could greatly expand the pool of scholarship money for students who stay in the state.

The two competing scholarship plans are the Alaska Achievers’ Incentive Program, or AAIP, and the Governor’s Performance Scholarship, also known as GPS. The qualification requirements for the packages would be very different, but what matters to student advocates is that after years of frustration in seeking tuition aid, respite may finally be on the horizon.

“We have a lot more momentum now than we have in past years,” said ASUAF Government Relations Director Nicole Carvajal. “We’ve been working on this scholarship program for years, and we’ve had a lot of support from our local legislators, and a handful of others from across the state. But this time there’s a much stronger push because it’s coming from the governor.”

Last year, student efforts to secure tuition aid finally gained traction when a pair of bills outlining a merit- and need-based scholarship package was introduced in the Alaska Legislature. House Bill 95 and Senate Bill 33, collectively known as AAIP, were drafted by legislators with the input of former university students. Unfortunately for their proponents, the bills were introduced at a politically inopportune time, as low oil prices made the scholarships’ potential price tag unpalatable to budget-minded legislators. In order to make the bills more attractive, sponsors made them “bucket” bills that established the scholarship program but did not set aside money for it, leaving the funding question unanswered.

In October, however, student scholarship advocates got a major boost when Governor Sean Parnell announced plans for a merit-based aid plan for Alaska high school seniors. Parnell’s GPS plan would set aside $400 million of the Constitutional Budget Reserve to fund the program. With a popular governor pushing it, the plan has significant momentum in Juneau. GPS has its drawbacks too, however, as it contains only merit-based aid, which is a major sticking point for AAIP supporters.

“If you just do merit-based, you’re leaving too many people behind,” said Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, an AAIP co-sponsor. “[The merit requirements established in the GPS program] only work if the education is uniform across the state. We know that isn’t true.”

Guttenberg also said that while merit requirements are a good idea, the GPS program as it is currently structured would leave out nontraditional students. He cited working parents who are continuing their education as a group harmed by the omission, saying, “You shouldn’t be handicapped if you have other responsibilities.”

Since it’s unlikely that the legislature will give both programs the thumbs-up, efforts are now underway to create a single solution that can satisfy the supporters of both plans. Student representatives are hoping needs-based aid makes the cut.

“We’re either asking them to add that component to GPS, or to work with AAIP,” Carvajal said.

A delegation of students from UAF, UAA, and UAS will head to Juneau in late February to advocate for University funding, and scholarships are at the top of their list of requests. “[Student scholarships and full funding of the Regents’ budget] are our top priorities,” said Carvajal, who added that budget money was still a concern despite collaboration between University President Mark Hamilton and Governor Parnell to establish common spending priorities. “Full funding for the Regents’ budget always looks like it may not happen, and that’s the case this year too,” she said. “So we’re pushing just as hard for both of those things.”

On the whole, scholarship supporters are happy that the legislature appears to be making progress toward helping students cover their tuition, no matter who gets credit. “I think that this year we’re in a unique position to get something passed because the governor has proposed this, and a lot of the research has already been done by the different groups that were pushing for it before,” Carvajal said. “As students, we’re in a good position because it doesn’t really matter to us what the name of whatever gets passed is – we see a need, and we’re trying to address it.”

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