AK Voices: Kevin Clarkson

Kevin Clarkson is an attorney in Anchorage.

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Scholarships That Are Solely Merit Based Are A Great Idea

Last January Governor Parnell came up with a great idea – encourage Alaska’s high school students to study hard and improve their grades and then stay in Alaska for their post-high school education or career/technical training. How did he propose to accomplish this feat? Create a program that promises merit based scholarships -- in other words, based solely on the students grade performance.

The Governor’s idea was to create a scholarship program in Alaska just like the programs that are already up and running successfully in 22 other states. By making the scholarships “merit based,” the program would improve high school graduation rates, prepare students for college or job training, and provide Alaskan students with affordable opportunities for higher education. By making the scholarships available for study and training in Alaska’s colleges and career/technical schools, the program would help sustain Alaska's economy with a capable workforce, and would help us to retain more equipped, hardworking Alaskan students.

Encouraging our best, equipping them, and then retaining more of them right here in Alaska. What a great idea!

The Governor’s program was rightly not designed to be just more “financial aid” for the financially needy – although the program would plainly benefit any financially needy student who gets the grades necessary to qualify for a scholarship. Needs based aid is already available at the federal and state levels for students and families who need financial help paying for the cost of higher education or for career/technical training. And, if the existing state financial aid programs require adjustments or additional funding, then those are separate matters that can and should be addressed separately by the Legislature.

What we are missing here in Alaska is a program just like the Governor’s, that will reward better academic performance by our high school students regardless of their families’ financial status, and then encourage them to stay in Alaska for their educations – and perhaps thereafter for their careers. My goodness, why would we not want to reward better grades for any student? Why would we not want to encourage our best students to stay in Alaska? Rewarding better grades and encouraging the best students to stay in Alaska is in Alaska’s best interest regardless of what the students’ family income might be. Not every government program is required to be a welfare program. Sometimes it is important to simply reward the highest achievers.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, I believe that it is important to make financial aid available to our needy students who want to pursue higher educations and/or career/technical training. I received my college and post-graduate professional educations (albeit in a day when it cost a lot less money than it does today) on the backs of federal grants and loans, and my children are now benefitting from those same programs as they pursue their educations. But, just because it is important to provide financial aid to those who need it (and there are a lot of folks out there who do need help given the skyrocketing cost of college and post-graduate professional educations) does not mean that we should not also be rewarding our best students and encouraging them to stay in Alaska regardless of their families’ incomes.

Here’s hoping that the Legislature can see its way through to separating the apples of merit based scholarship from the oranges of needs based financial aid. If the latter needs to be adjusted or better funded, then by all means do that. But, don’t scrap the idea of merit based scholarship just to make yourselves look better to a particular segment of the Alaska populace in an election year.

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