The power of scholarships

by Catalina Myers  |   

At the end of the fall 2021 semester, UAA's Office of Financial Aid released a report detailing the impact institutional scholarships have had on students ability to attend college or continue their education. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Lora Volden, vice chancellor for enrollment services, lives and breathes financial aid. When she arrives at her office each day, the first order of business is to review the “enrollment dashboards” to analyze the day's numbers.

Volden, who’s worked in UAA’s Office of Financial Aid for more than a decade, has watched the tumultuous rise and fall of the university’s enrollment over the years. One of the biggest challenges for students pursuing higher education in Alaska — or anywhere in the United States — is tuition costs. With increased financial costs, affordability for earning a bachelor’s degree and beyond has become increasingly difficult. While the university’s enrollment numbers are mainly out of UAA’s hands, what can be controlled is institutional scholarships and programs designed to alleviate the financial burden many students face.

“We know students who get an education have overall higher earnings throughout their lifetime,” said Volden. This is why UAA, beginning in spring 2020, created the first of three institutional scholarships designed to aid students who were starting their higher education journey, earning a degree or looking to return and complete their degree program. “We wanted to get some money into students' hands to make college affordable because we believe in education and the difference it can make.”

In April 2020, the university unveiled the 49th Finishers Scholarship, aimed at encouraging Alaskans who had either earned college credit from another institution or had started a degree program at UAA and never finished, to return and complete their program.

“Life happens,'' said Volden. “Sometimes you think you're going to come back, but then life gets in the way. That really resonated with people.”

According to Volden’s Impact of Financial Aid Report, released at the end of the fall 2021 semester, since 49th Finisher’s creation, 140 students benefited from $280,000 in scholarship funding, earning a total of 137 baccalaureate degrees and three associate degrees. 

“What was really cool about the 49th Finishers is that it was our first multi-year scholarship,” Volden said. “As long as students continued along their degree path, they had the opportunity to continue earning scholarship funds.”

Fueled by the success of the 49th Finishers Scholarship, the second institutional scholarship developed was Seawolf Start, designed to encourage recently graduated high school students to dip their toes into higher education. Volden said in Alaska and across the country, many high school students were choosing to delay college or forfeit attending altogether. 

She said her team reached out to the high schoolers who had initially said they had planned to attend UAA in the fall and then never enrolled to see if they could be convinced to take one class, particularly if there was financial assistance available.

“The hope was just to get their foot in the door,” said Volden. “If they took just one class, maybe they would continue, but if they decided not to continue, they could take the $500 with no other obligations to UAA.”

The data from the report showed 538 students enrolled at UAA, totaling 6,591 credits during the fall 2021 semester. Volden said the scholarship program was a success, boosting the university’s first-time student enrollment numbers.

As the pandemic wore on and students’ abilities to focus and complete their courses successfully waned, the numbers of students satisfactorily passing their classes dropped significantly. The Fresh Start scholarship is just that, a fresh start for students struggling to keep up with coursework during the pandemic. UAA offered 2,248 students the opportunity to retake a class at no additional cost to them, and of those offered, 520 students took advantage, re-enrolling in the summer and fall 2021 semesters.

“I think it’s important in this time of, ‘Our budget is down, our enrollment is down, and we’re all a little exhausted,’ to show that what we’re doing is making a difference,” said Volden of the report. “I think it’s also important for people to know and understand how necessary scholarships are. I think that’s the right path forward for us and that we need to continue to invest in our students.”

As a result of the positive feedback from students on UAA’s various scholarships, Volden is hopeful about the conversation regarding specific need-based scholarships. She said offering specific financial aid is a way for the university to convey that it is listening to the needs and wants of the student and greater community. Additionally, successful programs like 49th Finishers have pulled in donors who resonate with the scholarship's message and want to continue the fund to encourage more Alaskans who started their schooling to finish.

“I think anytime we make college an opportunity for somebody who couldn't see that for themselves before, is pretty exciting,” said Volden. “That’s what makes this job worth it.”

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