OLIVER: Addressing national misconceptions about Alaskan higher education 

Hooding Ceremony at Wendy Williamson Saturday, May 4, 2013. (Photo by Erin Hooley/University of Alaska Anchorage Office of Advancement/Creative Commons)

This guest editorial is by Younger Oliver. Oliver grew up in the Alaska bush, got a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage in English, a master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She worked as an academic advisor at UAA for three years and currently works and lives in Washington, D.C.

To submit a guest editorial for consideration, email Midnight Sun Editor Matt Buxton at matt@midnightsunak.com.

On Monday, July 29, Forbes published an article titled “University of Alaska Brouhaha: The Governor Has A Point.” The author, Richard Vedder, describes himself as “an economic historian who has turned my attention to the economics of higher education.” He is not the first to publish his opinions about Alaska on a national level without understanding the greater landscape of higher education in the state.

First, to address Vedder directly, he suggested that Alaska could “sign deals with Western states such as Washington, Oregon or Idaho to provide well qualified students some discount from regular out-of-state tuition fees.” A quick Google search would have revealed that this does, in fact, exist. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) membership includes 15 states and various U.S. territories. Over 1,200 students from Alaska saved more than $13 million in 2018-2019 by utilizing WICHE student access programs.

Vedder and others have given much focus to Alaska’s per capita spending on higher education, showing it is one of the highest in the country. He also uses the system’s graduation rates as a justification for the slashing of state funding. However, there are a few very important factors that should be considered when taking these numbers into account:

  • Alaska does not have a community college system and has very few private higher education institutions. Thus, the UA system provides nearly all postsecondary education options to all residents of Alaska. States with the lowest per capita spending on higher education, like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, are smaller, more populated, and have very different higher education structures than Alaska (and most of their towns are connected by roads). For example, in states that have a community college system and multiple private institutions, the state school system is not expected to shoulder the brunt of post-secondary education options. In addition, running an institution of any size requires money, and in a state with a small population, the per capita spending is naturally larger.
  • Graduation rates that are reported nationally are based on first-time students who start in the fall semester and attend full time and graduate within six years. The six-year graduation rate for Fall 2011 first-time, full-time freshmen seeking a bachelor’s degree was 31% for the University of Alaska system. The comparable national average graduation rate for open enrollment institutions was 30.7%. So yes, if you compare the University of Alaska to graduation rates that include highly selective institutions, the optics aren’t great. But compared to other open enrollment institutions, it’s doing just fine.
  • The UA student population is what you would expect from a system that serves many different state needs. In 2018, 59% of students at the UA system were enrolled part-time (and thus not included in the nationally-reported graduation rates). 51.3% of students enrolled in fall 2018 were above the age of 24, the generally accepted cutoff for being considered a “traditional” student. 18% of student credit hours taken in 2018 were taken by students in certificate, licensure, or non-degree seeking programs. We’re not talking about a typical state institution that receives transfer students from the state community college system or requires application essays. The UA system is open enrollment and manages to provide many levels of education in many areas to meet the needs of the state workforce.

Many, like Vedder, have suggested that UA should offer more online options to account for the state’s low population density. In theory, this sounds like a great idea. In fact, 30% of the degrees awarded in FY18 by the UA system were in programs 100% offered online, and another 23% in hybrid programs (50-99% online).

This is all well and good, but suggestions such as this reveal a deep lack of understanding of the culture and connectivity in rural Alaskan towns and villages. It is not feasible for most families to purchase individual internet options for their homes in these towns and villages, if that option is offered at all. The costs for companies or local governments to offer internet is exorbitant.

While hopefully change is coming in the form of new fiber optic cable being laid along the coastline, the current question still remains: how does the university provide access to education while also navigating continual budget cuts, student needs and safety, educational best practices, accreditation requirements, attracting and keeping qualified faculty and staff, and the myriad other responsibilities and expectations of a university system?

Vedder and others have condemned the UA system without considering its unique characteristics and attacking it for not being a better return on investment for the state. I argue that UA is providing a great return on investment by contributing millions of dollars into the state economy and producing educated graduates that are likely to stay in the state, filling Alaskan jobs with Alaskans. The students and employees of the University of Alaska deserve better than Dunleavy’s slashed budget, and they certainly deserve for national media to stop publishing poorly researched opinion pieces.

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5 Comments on "OLIVER: Addressing national misconceptions about Alaskan higher education "

  1. Most excellent Younger!

  2. Crickett Watt | August 1, 2019 at 6:00 pm | Reply

    Well thought out and obviously researched article. Ms. Oliver you did an outstanding job of articulating some of the many reasons what is happening to the University of Alaska system, the misguided thinking about a very unique set of needs for a very unique population, and the resulting destruction of a solid institution of higher education. The reverberations of these decisions will be felt by every person in Alaska and for a long time. It is shameful of this Governor to economically destroy Alaska for years to come.

  3. Thank you, Younger Oliver, for researching and sharing some under-reported facts about the University of Alaska. I agree, the students, UA employees, and residents of Alaska, all deserve better than what Mr Vedder attempts to sell. This all coming from a person who is a scholar (?) with the American Enterprise Institute, which advocates for lower taxes, fewer protections for consumers and the environment, and cuts to the social safety net. Maybe I do agree with one thing he stated in his article, “Universities need to downsize”…Ohio University could downsize his position.

  4. Jessie Westin | August 2, 2019 at 5:56 am | Reply

    Excellent article Younger. I know that I was a recipient of the now cut UA Scholars fund which swayed me to choose to stay in state to attend higher education. By attending school in state and receiving my bachelors in nursing (in 7 years) I also stayed to work here. I am not sure what my path would have been had I moved out of state for my degree. Hopefully we will get someone in office who values a long term plan to educate our states’ children.

  5. Thank you. Well-stated.

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