Scholarships offer incentives

Posted: Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Alaska's high school graduation rate jumped nearly five percentage points last school year, to 67.5 percent. We graduated more than 8,000 students, up by 700 students five years ago despite declining enrollments over that period.

That's great news. It reflects a committed effort by schools, families and students. But we need to do more to encourage students to graduate from high school. We must do better if Alaska's students are to be prepared for skilled, high-paying employment, whether in blue-collar or white-collar jobs.

Most jobs today, of all stripes, require some training or education beyond high school. Here again, Alaska is falling short. Many Alaska high school students do not go on to college. In college, they struggle. More than half of University of Alaska students must take at least one remedial course. Alaskans often do not complete their postsecondary certificate or degree program.

Among our ninth-graders today, only six out of 100 are likely to have a college degree ten years from now.

That's why the Parnell administration has proposed the Governor's Performance Scholarship program. It would provide financial incentives for high school students to earn admission to -- and be prepared to excel at -- public and private institutions of vocational or academic higher education in Alaska.

The scholarship recipients would be required to complete a rigorous course of study in high school, have good grades, and score well on an appropriate assessment. Alaska's postsecondary institutions would remain free to determine their admissions policies. The scholarship funds would be appropriated from earnings of a state endowment.

Our goals are to encourage Alaska's students to challenge themselves in high school and graduate. Those graduates will be better prepared to enter postsecondary training and education. They will be more likely to complete their postsecondary program because they are better prepared and can better afford the cost.

We envision three levels of academic scholarships, based on levels of student achievement, and one category of career and technical scholarship. We propose scholarships for students whose grade point averages range from C+ to A. The higher the academic achievement, the higher the scholarship. Yet we also provide an incentive for students to complete a challenging curriculum in high school even if they are not A students. Those students often become high-achievers in life.

We propose that the Governor's Performance Scholarship program begin with the high school Class of 2011, which would enter colleges or technical schools in the fall of 2011. The high school course requirements would be phased in over a few years. The course requirements are four years of English, math and science, and three years of social studies. Students in small rural schools could supplement their in-school courses with correspondence courses from Alaska school districts.

The rigorous course requirements are central to the program's value. The state currently mandates that high school graduates take four years of English and three years of social studies -- but only two years of math and science.

ACT -- a nationwide education nonprofit with extensive experience in college-entrance and career-ready assessments -- reports that students are much more likely to do well in college if they have taken at least four years of English and three years of math, social studies and science in high school.

The Governor's Performance Scholarship has even higher requirements than that. In fact, ACT has found that students who take a curriculum similar to the GPS requirement are significantly more likely to do well in college than other students.

Students who start high school with the goal of attending a postsecondary institution are more likely to work hard and graduate. Significantly, the GPS program would require school districts to talk to students in the spring of their eighth-grade year, or to students who are enrolling in an Alaska high school for the first time, about their high school curriculum options and the GPS program. Parents and guardians would be invited to attend the session.

The Governor's Performance Scholarship provides families the opportunity to plan for their student's future, regardless of whether it will require a technical education or an academic education. It gives students an incentive to work hard in high school to achieve their personal goals. It encourages high schools to offer the courses students need to excel in postsecondary institutions and in the workplace.

The Governor's Performance Scholarship does not break down every barrier to high school graduation or college completion. Our educators and policy makers will continue to work on those multi-faceted issues. The GPS's greatest value is to empower families to feel ownership of their children's education.

Larry LeDoux is the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

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