Cuts to the University of Alaska budget are in the headlines just as we are about to celebrate the graduation of 650 new UAS graduates — students entering the workforce who know full well the value of a college education. Celebrating student success reminds us that support for UA is not simply a line on a budget spreadsheet; it is a critical investment in Alaska’s future.
UAS graduate and Alaska’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, James Harris, knows the value of a university education. He teaches at Soldotna High School and says “I am an excellent example of having secured a teaching position immediately upon graduating.” For James, UAS’ accelerated teacher education program was a fast-track to a meaningful job. “I can’t help but reflect on the massive impact the UAS program has had on my personal and professional success.”
Currently Alaska hires about two-thirds of its new teachers from outside of the state. UA President Jim Johnsen wants to change that. He supports hiring far more Alaskans who are educated in-state; teachers who know our history, cultures, languages, and way of life. Amy Jo Meiners, a 28-year Juneau educator and 2016 Teacher of the Year, agrees: “In a state with a lack of teacher applicants for many positions, it is critical that the University of Alaska educates Alaskan teachers, especially for our rural locations.”
UAS also prepares students for jobs in business and accounting. Sarah Griffith, a UAS graduate working with the firm of Elgee Rehfeld Mertz, notes that “the accounting internship has allowed our firm to hire locally. … This provides a huge benefit to both our firm and the employee. When we hire employees who have interned for us previously, they are already up to speed on much of what we do — which is a tremendous benefit.”
Ketchikan Campus graduate Darren McKeehan from Metlakatla is another good example: he found a job at the Vigor Shipyard. Darren is an Iraq War veteran and a graduate of the UAS Maritime and Multi-Skilled Worker program. Vigor Vice President Doug Ward says “for the last 25 years we have hired UAS graduates to assist us in building and repairing ships at the Ketchikan Shipyard. … UAS graduates are consistently well-prepared to enter and advance to leadership positions within Vigor.”
These are but a few examples of what employers and graduates have to say about a UAS education — meeting the workforce needs of Southeast Alaska and the state as a whole.
Importantly, as Alaska’s budget gets tighter and the workplace more competitive, job-seekers will need even more education and training. Currently only about a third of all Alaskans have any post-secondary education. Even a basic certificate would give them an advantage in applying for jobs. The Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education argues that our state has a post-secondary completion crisis: “Roughly 65 percent of Alaska’s fastest-growing, high-wage jobs will require some form or post-high school credential by the year 2020.” Alaska is behind the curve in meeting this need, but we’re working hard to improve.
With this in mind, UAS is redoubling efforts to offer quality, affordable educational programs. Our tuition remains well below the average for public universities in the West. Through a program called COME HOME ALASKA, we’re offering prospective students living Outside the opportunity to return and pay in-state tuition if they have a parent or grandparent member currently living here. This can save as much as $8,000 for a bachelor’s degree student.
UAS is encouraging adults who’ve earned some college credits but never completed a degree to graduate through FINISH COLLEGE ALASKA. Students can complete a bachelor’s degree by taking online courses offered through UAS — working around work schedules and family obligations. Estimates are that more than 100,000 Alaskans can benefit from this opportunity.
UAS is also encouraging current students to increase the number of credits they take, if their schedule allows. Through the STAY ON TRACK program, students who ‘bump up’ from 12 credits to 15 can be eligible for a $500 award. Students who take more credits finish faster and are more likely to be successful in their coursework.
UAS graduates know the value of a university education; that their degree makes them more competitive in the job market and prepares them for the 21st century workforce. Employers know that a UAS graduate is much more likely to have critical thinking skills, the ability to communicate and work collaboratively, and professional motivation to succeed. It’s a win-win for both students and employers.
The bottom line: we cannot view the University of Alaska as just another cost driver or expense on a spreadsheet. Financial support for our university is an investment in the lives of young Alaskans who are raising families, building communities, and shaping Alaska’s future.
• Rich Caulfield is the Chancellor of the University of Alaska Southeast.