- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Nearly 840 students who graduated from Alaska public high schools last year received $3 million in state-sponsored merit scholarships, a newly released report shows.

An annual report on the Alaska Performance Scholarship program found about 32 percent of graduates in 2013 were eligible for scholarships and about 34 percent of those used their scholarships. In 2012, about 38 percent of eligible graduates used their scholarships in the fall immediately following graduation.

One possible reason for the lower percentage is that colleges around the country, including Alaska, reported seeing declining enrollments from fall 2012 to fall 2013, said Brian Rae, assistant director of research and analysis with the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.

To date, the program has awarded a total of $16.7 million to about 3,000 students.

The program is a pet project of Gov. Sean Parnell, who has cast it as a way to raise expectations and help transform the state’s public education system.

Students must complete a set curriculum, graduate with at least a 2.5 grade point average and meet scoring thresholds on tests like the SAT to qualify. Award levels range from $2,378 to $4,755 a year that can go toward college or career and technical educations in Alaska. Students have up to six years to use eight semesters of aid. The vast majority of scholarship recipients thus far have attended schools within the University of Alaska system.

Only 12 high school graduates from 2013 who received performance scholarships went to an institution other than the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Southeast, the report said. That figure includes the 29 private school or homeschool students who qualified for and accepted scholarships.

Changes in eligibility requirements affecting 2013 graduates included more course hours in required areas and a decrease in minimum scores required on a skills test for a career and technical scholarship, the report stated.

Until last year, public school graduates eligible for the highest level of award were far more likely to attend college out of state than in Alaska, the report found. But since the first awards were given in 2011, that gap has narrowed, which the report attributes, in part, to the ability of students to better plan. Now, about 41 percent attended college in Alaska and 43 percent attended outside the state. Another 16 percent either were not attending school or not found.

Since the program’s inception, students deemed to be economically disadvantaged have been far less likely to be eligible for scholarships than non-disadvantaged students, a pattern that hasn’t changed, according to the report. Just 17 percent of economically disadvantaged public school graduates met the program’s requirements and those that did were slightly less likely to have taken advantage of their scholarship in the fall after high school graduation, the report stated.

White students made up about 39 percent of scholarship-eligible public school graduates in 2013. Eligibility rates among Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander graduates have risen each year from 2011.

The report said it’s difficult to conclude that more students are better prepared for college studies because of the program, noting that more time must pass for clear eligibility trends. But the report says a larger percentage of students are meeting the highest eligibility requirements, which it says is an indication the program has affected student achievement.

The report also found that among first-time freshmen in the University of Alaska system last fall, scholarship students were far less likely to need remedial classes than students who did not receive scholarships.

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