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Dunleavy signs bill expanding Alaska Performance Scholarship program

Riley Board
/
KDLL
Rep. Justin Ruffridge co-chairs the House Education Committee on April 13.

Last week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed a bill expanding a state scholarship program. Advocates say it will help more Alaska students qualify for and use the Alaska Performance Scholarship program, which gives money to Alaska’s high performing students to use at in-state universities.

The bill expanding the program was sponsored by the House Education Committee and carried by the office of Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge’s office during the 33rd Alaska Legislature. Speaking to the Kenai City Council on Wednesday, Ruffridge celebrated the bill becoming law.

“For those of you with connections to our area high schools, certainly something you might want as information for students going into their senior year, especially this year,” he said.

Since the program was established in 2011, it’s paid out over $100 million to more than 11,000 students. Use of the scholarship has declined in recent years. In 2022, just 17% of Alaska high school seniors were eligible for the program. The same year, that rate was just 15% for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

The bill increases scholarship award amounts, requires school districts to notify students earlier of scholarship opportunities and removes standardized testing as a prerequisite for eligibility.

The lowest level scholarship award amount would increase from $2,378 per year to $3,500 per year. Awards for the middle level would go from $3,566 to $5,250. For the highest scholarship level, the amount would increase from $4,755 to $7,000 per year.

Additionally, the bill creates a new “step-up” provision that allows students to increase their scholarship amount if their grade point average improves in college. Students can also now use career and technical education courses toward eligibility.

Kenai Peninsula residents joined Alaskans from around the state in voicing their support for the bill when it was introduced.

Virginia Morgan lives in Cooper Landing and also serves on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Board of Education. She was one of multiple people who spoke in favor of removing standardized testing as one of the scholarship’s eligibility criteria. Addressing the House Education Committee last year, she said not all Alaska students have equal access to testing. That can make it harder for them to qualify for the program.

“The testing opportunities are limited on the Kenai Peninsula and our family lives 50 miles away from the nearest testing center,” she said. “There was one test available for my daughter to take as a senior and it was in the City of Seward. Luckily, we do live on the road system and we were able to leave home around 5 a.m. to drive through a snowstorm for her to take the test.”

Megan Murphy, a counselor at Soldotna High School, shared similar thoughts with the committee.

“It’s just not fair for students that live in Nanwalek and Tebughna to have to come over and they can’t access testing sites,” she said. “And this year, we had students that had to go drive to Anchorage or go to Homer in order to access those tests. So for this reason, many of our students are choosing not to do these tests because they don’t have accessibility — by cost or the ability to get to those testing sites. Which is unfortunate, because otherwise they would qualify.”

State data show that standardized testing requirements do impact how many students receive Alaska Performance Scholarships. The program’s testing requirements were waived for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the number of students eligible for the scholarship went up. That trend was also observed on the Kenai Peninsula.

On Wednesday, Kenai City Council member James Baisden said he’s hopeful the changes will encourage more Alaskans to stick around.

“My son’s been a direct benefit of that at the University of Fairbanks and it’s played out well for us keeping him in state,” he said. “I think it’ll play a big part maybe with some of these other kids doing the same thing.”

Changes to the Alaska Performance Scholarship became effective at the end of last month. That means they’ll be in place for students for the upcoming school year. More information about the Alaska Performance Scholarship can be found on the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education’s website at aps.alaska.gov.

Prior to joining KDLL's news team in May 2024, O'Hara spent nearly four years reporting for the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai. Before that, she was a freelance reporter for The New York Times, a statehouse reporter for the Columbia Missourian and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach her at aohara@kdll.org