This summer the University of Alaska Southeast’s Finish College Alaska program launched, and with it, the plan to increase the number of degree-toting adults.
Twenty-nine percent of Alaskans between the ages of 25-64 (about 114,00) have taken some college classes but have never received a degree, according to a 2014 report from the Lumina Foundation, which has studied the postsecondary education attainment rate in all 50 states.
Well aware of Alaska’s high numbers compared to the rest of the U.S., UAS began to develop Finish College Alaska two years ago. Today, the program is an information campaign about ways people can complete their degrees. It also offers support to help returning students be successful when stepping back into the classroom. For some students, that’s after decades.
Associate Director of Recruitment and Advising Amanda Triplett said there could be a variety of reasons so many people in Alaska haven’t completed their college degree. But in her experience, she said, it’s because of how the economy and environment are changing.
“Alaska is unique in that people can have a GED or high school diploma and go into the workforce and get a really well paying job right away,” she said. “So you can work at one of the mines, be a commercial fisherman, work up on the Slope and make really good money without having to get that two-year or four-year degree.”
Many jobs require a college degree to move up, however, and the knowledge from many degrees can also help people manage their own businesses or pursue their careers in new ways, she said.
This is where Finish College Alaska comes in.
Dr. William Urquhart of the Ketchikan campus, an assistant professor of sociology, played a key role in the launch and development of the program, from grant writing to supervision of newly hired advisors. Urquhart said the program has received dozens of inquiries after the Finish College Alaska site launched. Advisors answer questions on a chat function, answer phone calls or email students who send in inquiries for follow-up.
“Working here in Ketchikan, and especially working with a lot of online education students, one of my great joys as an instructor is watching, maybe non-traditional students — maybe they’re returning to college after a really long break — come back and see the joy of them finishing their degree that they worked so hard to start years ago,” said Urquhart, who primarily teaches online and distance classes.
He described children and other family members loudly cheering as their parent or loved one walks across the commencement stage to receive his or her diploma.
“With the life experiences that they’ve had, with working careers and raising families, they really understand the value of getting an education.”
There are a few common misconceptions about returning to finish a degree, Urquhart said, something that the program hopes to clear up with its information campaign. First, college credits do not expire, but sometimes they do not always transfer from one institution to another because each has its own specific requirements when it comes to classes. An advisor for Finish College Alaska can look at college transcripts and give prospective students an idea of how many of their credits they can use if they are a transfer student, and what they need to finish their degrees as an incoming or returning student.
Sometimes, a student’s major switches from when they first went to college, which can change how many classes they need to take to graduate. Urquhart used the hypothetical example of a biology student who didn’t finish school but later came back for their English degree. Not all of their biology credits, depending of course on how many they originally took and how many transfers, will fill in course requirements for one in English.
Something Urquhart said he thinks UAS does well is interdisciplinary studies. If a student’s previous classes match up with UAS’s class catalogue, those credits can be used to build unique degrees. So that hypothetical ex-biology student could major with a primary concentration in English and get a secondary concentration in biology.
“Our advisors are there to help match a student’s goals up with the appropriate degree program and do so in a way that’s going to best take advantage of the past course work they’ve already completed so they have a clear path to completion,” Urquhart said.
The advisors of Finish College Alaska are being trained in the Credit for Prior Learning program so UAS can give students credit not only for academic classes, but for real-life experiences.
“We have a system in place right now where if a student received training and possesses skills that they can document to put together in a portfolio, and if that portfolio can be matched up with learning outcomes from a specific course we have in our course catalog, the student can meet with the faculty member and with their advisor to have credit awarded for that life experience and documented training that they’ve already completed,” Urquhart said. For example, if the student had leadership training at their office, they could get college credit for an upper division business class on leadership if it meets requirements.
A big part of Finish College Alaska is the guidance for returning students. For some, it can be a little strange initially because “the whole landscape of education has changed.” Advisors help with everything from technology concerns, directing financial aid questions to mapping out students’ paths to their degrees.
More and more people are doing distance and online learning, but the technology is not a barrier, he emphasized, but part of the learning process — and part of most skill sets in the working world.
Online learning also helps students who can’t uproot their lives from Kake, Petersburg or other communities to attend in-person, on-campus classes. Even for students who live in Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau, where UAS’s campuses are physically located, it’s no simple task to always go to classes in-person if they have fulltime jobs and families.
Some advisors go literally farther than one might think. One of the ways the advisors help is by meeting students in person. One flew recently to Metlakatla to visit a student, bringing the student a laptop checked out from the library.
For more information about the program, go to finishcollege.alaska.edu.
• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.