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2012 February 20 - 12:00 am

Report Finds Ethnic Gaps in Alaska Scholarship Program

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Caucasian students in Alaska are 4½ times more likely to be academically eligible for state-funded merit scholarships than Alaska Native or American Indian students, a report shows.

But the report also finds that once eligible, public school students from most ethnic groups — including whites and Natives — take advantage of the scholarship at the same rate, around 36 percent.

Girls are more likely to be eligible for scholarships than boys, the report finds, but 36 percent who were eligible from each group took an award during the first year after graduation.

The report, released by the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, provides a status update on the Alaska Performance Scholarship Program. Last year’s graduates were the first who could be eligible for the program, a pet project of Gov. Sean Parnell.

Parnell has called scholarships key to raising expectations for students and helping to transform a public education system marred by lackluster graduation rates, truancy and drop-outs.

Students who complete a set curriculum with at least a C+ average can qualify for aid. Award levels range from $2,378 to $4,755 a year that can go toward college or career and technical educations in Alaska. About three dozen institutions, from universities and community colleges to barber, Bible and trade schools, participate in the program. Qualified students have six years to use up to four years of state aid.

About $3 million was paid in scholarships for last year’s graduates, half of what the Legislature approved. At least part of that may be due to the uncertainty that surrounded the program. While the Legislature approved a framework for scholarships in 2010, it did not approve any funding until graduation season last year.

Parnell has proposed $8 million for scholarships next fiscal year. He also wants the Legislature to create a fund, with $400 million set aside last year, from which earnings would be used to pay for future scholarships.

Eric Fry, a spokesman for the state education department, said that as the program becomes better known, the department expects more students will try to earn scholarships. Schools will make sure necessary courses are available either onsite or through a long-distance learning network, and parents will monitor their children’s education more closely, he said.

“The transformations will take time,” he wrote in an email. “If Alaska didn’t need to improve career and postsecondary readiness, we wouldn’t need an incentive like this.”

Stephanie Butler, director of program operations for the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, said the commission is glad to see early signs the program is “making a difference.” She said focus now will be on trying to secure long-term, sustainable funding so students can have assurance that aid will be available as they make their post-secondary plans.

The commission’s executive director is also interested in raising public awareness of the program.

The vast majority of scholarship recipients are attending either the University of Alaska Anchorage or the University of Alaska Fairbanks, according to the report. About $2.5 million in aid went to students pursuing a bachelor’s degree. About $339,000 went to students pursuing an associate’s degree, and about $70,800 to students pursuing certificates.

Preliminary information from the University of Alaska indicated scholarship-eligible students took fewer remedial courses when they got to university and also enrolled in more credit hours their first semester than scholarship-ineligible students, the report states.

A more complete picture of the program’s impact is expected as recipients continue through school and into the workforce, the report states.

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