Giving it the old college try: Legislature must address lack of need-based aid for students

Voices Of The Peninsula

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2008

There is a well-known aphorism, often attributed to Mark Twain: "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session." While the issues currently before the Alaska Legislature are, perhaps, not quite so threatening, there is one issue before them of great significance to those citizens who try to take the long view regarding the future economic health of our great state. That issue is need-based financial aid to Alaska college students. Or, I should say, the lack of such aid.

Compared to the other states, Alaska's provision for financial aid to its needy students is dismal. Let's look at some statistics:

* Alaska ranks 51st among states (including the District of Columbia) in college-going rates of low-income youth from 1994 to 2005. ("Low income" being defined as students who qualify for federal Pell grants.)

* The rate of college attendance among low-income youth ranges from 8.6 percent (Alaska) to 41.3 percent (Iowa). The next-lowest ranking goes to Nevada with 14.9 percent.

* The 2006-07 national average of the support provided by state grant programs is 38.6 percent of what a student received from a Pell grant. Alaska ranked 41st, providing its students only 7.7 percent of the amount of a Pell grant. Vermont ranked first, supplying an impressive 109 percent of the amount a student receives from a Pell grant.

These statistics make it clear that needy college students in Alaska are at a real disadvantage when compared to similar students in other states. A very poor college student who received the maximum amount of available grants to attend the University of Alaska would still need to come up with about $11,000 per year from other sources, such as loans or employment.

This student could qualify for up to $3,000 in Federal Work Study funds, if available. Still, that means the student has to borrow $8,000 for their first year of education. A student in this situation would graduate with $40,000 in student loan debt after five years, even while working during college. Even if this student applied his or her PFD toward the cost of education every year, the debt upon graduation would be more than $30,000.

Racking up this sort of debt can be a powerful disincentive for Alaskans to obtain the post-secondary education they will need to be qualified to fill the jobs that will drive our state's economy in the future.

For too long our state has expended exorbitant sums to "rent" the professionals our economy needs from Outside. Consider this: since the pipeline was completed, more than $82 billion (that's right billion) have left Alaska in nonresident paychecks. Even if half of this money had stayed here, imagine what our economy would look like. Heck, we might even have a true economy that isn't based upon exporting our natural resources and importing professional services and people.

Some members of our Legislature are trying to address this issue via House Bill 397, which would create the Alaska Achievers' Incentive Scholarship Program. This program would award a scholarship of $1,000 to any student with a grade point average of 3.0 or better, at least $4,000 in unmet financial need and admitted to a degree or certificate program and enrolled in six or more credits.

Using the example of the very poor student cited above, a program like this would reduce their debt upon graduation after five years by about $10,000.

How often have you heard, "I'm still paying off my student loan"? The phrase spoken in the negative implies that students shouldn't take out a loan. For many, this fear keeps them away from college. When you consider you can get a student loan at 3.05 percent interest, it is as close to free money you'll ever see. As University of Alaska president Mark Hamilton says, "This is the best investment you can make because you are investing in yourself."

If we, as Alaskans, are serious about moving away from our traditional "boom-and-bust" economy, where most of the profits from the boom leave our state, but all of the loss from the bust is felt right here, we must get serious about developing a cadre of trained professionals.

Failure to make this modest investment will only prolong our status as a colony of the Lower 48: a place where folks go to make their fortune, then leave and take that fortune with them.

If you agree with me that it is time for our legislators to take action and invest in Alaska's future, I urge you to contact them and let them know that you support the Alaska Achievers' Incentive Scholarship Program. If it doesn't pass this year, the Legislature should brace for an onslaught by their constituent college students who deserve much better.

Bill Howell is the director of student services at the KPC Kenai River Campus in Soldotna.

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