With funding for widely received state scholarships on hold, Fairbanks area students are weighing their options for higher education.
“I don’t know where I’m going to get the money to be able to afford to go to college now,” said Joshua George, 18, a student who was hoping to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks this fall.
“At this point I’m still looking for some form of funding,” he said, adding that he might be looking for a second job or working more hours so he can make enough to attend.
The Alaska Performance Scholarship, the Alaska Education Grant and the five-state WWAMI medical education program are a part of the state’s Higher Education Investment Fund. This year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy included the Higher Education Investment Fund in a group of subaccounts that are part of an annual sweep of funds that occurs each fiscal year, moving the funds back into the Constitutional Budget Reserve and leaving the higher education fund empty.
To prevent that from occurring, the Legislature would have had to approve a “reverse sweep” budget provision. There were not enough votes for that, however, and on Tuesday, students and parents received notice from the Alaska Commission on Post-secondary Education that the funds for these programs were unavailable.
The Alaska Performance Scholarship is awarded to students who are Alaska residents who graduate after meeting certain criteria. There are three tier levels, with the third providing the lowest sum of scholarship money and the first providing the highest amount of funding. Students who achieve the highest level have to have graduated with a SAT score of 1,210 or an ACT score of 25 and have at least a 3.5 GPA.
There is still a chance that money might be restored, but in the meantime students are trying to plan amid uncertainty.
This legislative session has been a rough one for the George family. John George is a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. With Dunleavy’s veto of $130 million for UA upheld, John said the whole family has been stressed and anxious because he may lose his job.
“And then followed right by that is this news about the performance scholarship which really stressed out my son,” he said, adding that Joshua had a lot of initiative to go to school before the notice arrived.
Joshua took four classes after he graduated early to meet the requirements for the scholarship. Two of those classes were taken at UAF; they don’t count toward his desired degree program in mechanical engineering, but they did fulfill scholarship requirements.
Without the scholarship, and with the possibility of losing a tuition waiver if his father loses his job, Joshua said he doesn’t see how he can afford to go to college.
“We actually live very close to UAF, so I was potentially going to be able to live at home while going to college,” he said, “but if my dad loses his job, they’re going to possibly have to move away to find a job. So I’ll have to not only find a way to support myself, but also find a way to afford college, neither of which I had planned for.”
John said they’ve been having ongoing conversations about how they’re going to try to pay for school.
“I mean as a parent you want to try and give your child hope in the future, and I’ve just told him, no matter what, we’re going to try and figure it out,” he said, adding that he found the timing of the announcement to be “incredibly poor.”
“It’s just, it’s devastating to people who figured the money was there,” he said.
For parent Tresha Nash, who has one daughter taking classes at UAF and another who graduated this spring, loss of the scholarship funds has created a dilemma.
“As a parent, I’m having to choose which child I’m going to support academically: the one who’s halfway through her program or that one that’s just starting her program,” she said.
She said she’s already had a conversation with her younger daughter about foregoing college this fall while looking at options for the future.
“It was not an easy one as a parent,” Nash said.
Nash added that she thinks it’s “absolutely cruel” for the funding to be canceled six weeks before the start of the semester.
“Their whole high school is mapped out with classes being selected for them with the promise of the scholarship,” she said.
Nash said every student currently eligible “has done what is required of them, and for the Legislature and the state to turn around and say no we’re not going to vote on this right now, with six weeks for school to start, is just cruel, and they’re being used as pawns.”
Emma Ranft, 20, has been receiving the scholarship while working full time and paying her way through college. Now she’s facing a situation somewhat similar to the Georges, as her father also works at the university.
“I will probably have to take out loans because I normally get free tuition through the university, because my dad works there, but because of the budget cuts, he’s probably going to be losing his job,” she said.
Ranft hopes to continue attending UAF but noted she is majoring in foreign language and art.
“I kind of feel like education isn’t really being given a priority at all, which is really sad to me because I want to be a teacher and UAF has always been one of the best campuses in the state and I feel like we’re losing a lot of what makes Fairbanks so great because we’re losing so much of the money that we need to upkeep it,” she said.
Richard Ranft has been discussing options for helping pay for Emma’s education.
“Most likely what’s going to happen is my wife and I are probably going to do something like a parental student loan, something like that, to be able to help her finish,” he said.
He added that they’ve been open with their daughter on the topic.
“She doesn’t like it, because she wanted to do this without being in debt, but this is just the hand we’ve been dealt,” he said.
Morgan Carter, Phoenix Williams and Abigail Steffen, all 21, have been attending school at UAF, and all receive the Alaska Performance Scholarship.
“I gained it when I was in high school and then it just automatically applies to my tuition every semester and it usually pays about half of my tuition every semester,” Carter said.
Carter is still planning to attend school this fall.
“For me, it’s less of a financial burden because my parents did have a savings plan for me, so I have that to fall back on, but it’s more of I worked really hard in high school to earn that and now it’s being taken away from me,” she said.
For Williams, the Alaska Performance Scholarship accounts for the “major portion” of financial support and is “what allows me to continue going to school and receive my education.”
Williams, a music major, has already applied to other schools because of uncertainty about the future of the music program.
“It’s been very confusing on my end as a student because we don’t know what’s happening yet through the university, so I don’t know what my possibilities are right now,” Williams said. “As it stands, my department hasn’t been cut yet, but the Board of Regents still have to meet and come up with a plan of which department will be cut or what campuses will be closed, so I have no idea yet if I will still be attending UAF.”
Abigail Steffen, in her senior year, is in limbo.
“As of right now, I’m planning on staying for the semester, kind of seeing how things play out. I don’t want to give up on UAF right away,” she said.
However, Steffen added if her program gets cut and she doesn’t think going to UAF is worth what she’d be paying without the scholarship, she will likely make the decision to continue school elsewhere.
“That’s pretty far in the future, but still on my mind right now,” she said.
Steffen is optimistic the Legislature will find a way to put the money back.
“I still feel like there’s hope for this scholarship, because as long as they’re still in special session they can bring it up and try to sweep the funds back into the account,” she said.
Students have been calling the university trying to figure out what happened to the funds, whether they will arrive in time for school to start and whether they want to attend UAF, said Mary Kreta, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management.
“At this point, there’s not very much time left before the school starts, and a lot of these students were counting on that funding, had been promised that funding, and so their concern is they don’t have enough money,” she said.
Kreta said parents have been calling in with similar questions.
“I think the most common question is, No. 1, ‘Will APS be here?’ And (No.) 2, ‘Now what? If it’s not here, now what? What other options do I have?’” she said.
The university is working with legislators to rectify the situation, Kreta said.
“We want to be partners with the students in getting this done and partners with the Legislature, too,” she said.
Kreta added that if students don’t call the Alaska Commission on Post-secondary Education, they should call the financial aid office at the university, which is able to help answer questions.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter at: twitter.com/FDNMlocal.