University of Alaska students sue to protect fund for scholarships, medical education

The University of Alaska Anchorage campus on a sunny afternoon. The campus was largely empty.
The University of Alaska Anchorage campus in August 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Four University of Alaska students are suing the state government in an attempt to maintain a fund that pays for scholarships. 

The Alaska Higher Education Investment Fund has been under threat of being emptied of more than $400 million as a result of legislative budget fights. It pays for Alaska Performance Scholarships, need-based Alaska Education Grants and the state program for medical students, WWAMI.

Riley von Borstel of Seward is one of the students who sued. She’s the student body president at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She said the scholarships are essential for her and other students. 

“If this funding weren’t available to students anymore, I think the University of Alaska System would see a significant decline in enrollment amongst Alaskan students,” she said. “I think many of them would decide not to attend school in Alaska if this funding weren’t available.”

Students Madilyn Short, Jay-Mark Pascua, Kjrsten Schindler and von Borstel filed the lawsuit on Tuesday against Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Administration.

According to the Dunleavy administration, the money in the fund must be swept into state savings account if three-quarters of each legislative chamber doesn’t vote each year to maintain the funding. And this vote failed last year. 

Another lawsuit, filed by the Alaska Federation of Natives and 17 other plaintiffs, successfully protected the Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund, which also has been threatened by the legislative disputes. That fund pays to lower the cost of electricity in high-cost rural areas. 

In the new lawsuit, lawyers for both sides jointly asked that a judge hear arguments in the case quickly and issue a ruling by Feb. 22, leaving time for an appeal and for the Legislature to take the ruling into account in the budget. 

Dunleavy said in a statement that he supports funding the scholarships. 

University of Alaska Interim President Pat Pitney wrote in a letter to students that the university supports the lawsuit. 

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.