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Scholarships for thousands of Alaska college students still in doubt with failed procedural vote

Despite the uncertainty, students are still encouraged to apply for scholarships before a June 30 deadline
 A view of UAF campus from the air.
A view of UAF campus from the air. (KTVF)
Published: Jun. 29, 2021 at 4:06 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Tazia Wagner is frustrated. She will soon start studying a Master of Arts in Indigenous studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is hoping to focus on fisheries and Indigenous peoples in law.

She says the scholarships she receives, including $3,000 per year from the Alaska Education Grant program, are the “biggest factor” why she decided to study in Alaska.

“It makes all of us students, dependent on funding from scholarships and grants, worried that our funding will be cut,” Wagner said. “Sometimes that’s the only thing that keeps a lot of us in school.”

She is from the first class of graduates of the Tamamta program which aims to get more Indigenous people working in fisheries. Wagner works in fisheries for the Metlakatla Indian Community and wants to keep working in fisheries and tribal relations when she graduates.

The Alaska Legislature has caused the uncertainty. It may have averted a state government shutdown on Monday, but scholarships paid to Wagner and thousands of Alaska college students are still in jeopardy after legislators failed to pass an annual procedural vote.

The three-quarter vote, known as “the reverse sweep,” is needed to keep dozens of state accounts full from July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate failed to pass that measure before adjourning on Monday.

The Alaska Higher Education Investment Fund, at almost $344 million, is now set to be emptied. It pays out the Alaska Education Grant to students based on financial hardship and Alaska Performance Scholarships which support high-achieving students.

Another program that helps Alaska college students study medicine in Alaska is also in jeopardy. The WWAMI is a collaborative medical school among universities in the northwestern states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho as well as the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“More than 5,400 Alaskan students receive $15.1 million in scholarships and grants through the APS and AEG programs, 86 percent of whom attend the University of Alaska,” UAA Interim President Pat Pitney said in a press release from the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education. “Additionally, the WWAMI program provides $3.2 million in funding and serves 80 medical students.”

The commission administers the three scholarships. It announced that it expects the issue to be resolved by the Legislature soon, but it is not certain when that will happen.

The UAF Financial Aid Office told current students that until the Legislature resolves the three-quarter vote issue, the commission “is not able to make awards for any of these programs.”

Scholarships are typically awarded in early August, the email continues to say, and the university pays them out around the first day of class on Aug. 24. Despite the uncertainty, students are still being encouraged to apply for scholarships for the upcoming fall semester before a June 30 deadline.

Part of the challenge in paying out the scholarships on time is that the Legislature adjourned the second special session on Monday afternoon. Currently, legislators are set to reconvene for another 30-day special session on Aug. 2.

The reverse sweep was tied into a complicated package requiring three-quarters of legislators to vote for it. If it passes, the $525 Permanent Fund dividend would double, projects across the Matanuska-Susitna Borough would be funded and a monthly payment to help reduce power bills in rural Alaska would continue to go out.

Legislators across the aisle say the reverse sweep will pass, eventually, but it is being spoken about by House Republicans as a bargaining chip to forge a comprehensive fiscal plan.

“We still have the three-quarter vote ahead of us,” said Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, on Monday, after voting to send the budget to the governor’s desk. “And we’re going to hold onto that.”

This uncertainty for Alaska college students is not new.

The same three-quarter vote failed in 2019, before it was resolved in August of that year, allowing scholarships to be disbursed. University of Alaska officials said in January 2020 that heated budget debates and uncertainty over scholarships contributed to a 9.5% decline in enrollment statewide.

“It’s an annoying feeling at this point that it’s happening again,” Wagner said.

Trevor Bailly, an incoming senior at UAF, receives around $2,400 per year from the Alaska Performance Scholarship program. It pays for around one quarter of his annual tuition and he says losing it would result in him considering taking out student loans.

Bailly, who works as a legislative aide for Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said he first went to college in Delaware, but found he couldn’t afford it. The scholarship he now receives helped him come home.

“It’s the reason why I’m in Alaska right now,” he said. “It’s played a big impact on where I go to school and why I’m still here.”

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