When University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton lobbied the Legislature for an increased budget today, he was backed up by some of his students.
About 25 student government leaders from across the state are in Juneau this week to talk about university issues and meet with legislators. The university is seeking a $16.9 million increase to its $186 million operating budget from the state general fund.
"I don't need you to know every detail of the budget. We've got people who can do that," John Pugh, University of Alaska Southeast chancellor, told the students Saturday at the Goldbelt Hotel.
"What you do is bring in to these (legislators') offices what it's like being a student, what it is you as a student need, what it is you aren't getting," such as enough upper-level courses to graduate on time, Pugh said.
University officials will make the case that only about a quarter of Alaska high school graduates go on to post-secondary schools, that many of those go out of state, and that Alaska needs a well-educated work force for its current jobs and emerging industries such as transportation logistics and information technology.
"The university system is the core to promoting well-trained people in the state and keeping the businesses and these trained people in the state," said Aaron Summers, president of the student government at Matanuska-Susitna College in Palmer.
The university has put some of its $15 million budget increase gained this fiscal year toward scholarships for top Alaska high school graduates, summer programs for current high school students, more staff in the admissions and financial aid offices, and greater efforts to attract and retain students.
Amber Timothy, vice president of the UAS student government, said she attended Brigham Young University in Utah straight out of Juneau-Douglas High School.
"I hated it. And then I came back here to UAS, and this school is much better than I ever knew in high school," Timothy said. "And I think most high school students don't realize what a good education you can get from the University of Alaska."
Lissa Robertson, government relations director of the Associated Students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, will tell lawmakers her story as a California high school student who came to Alaska to get a bachelor's degree in rural development with an emphasis in natural resource management.
"This is one of the programs that really prepares people for working in Alaska, both rural and urban areas," said Robertson.
But many of the students in the program are in the Bush and need a good system of distance-delivered classes, she said. The university has used some of its increased budget in the current fiscal year to boost those services.
Nearly a third of the Legislature met with the students Saturday and answered questions about future state revenues and their vision for the university.
Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat, said the Legislature has been keeping a "pretty tight rein" on the government. But if lawmakers don't allow for an increased population and inflation, a tight rein amounts to cutting the budget, he said.
Rep. Hugh Fate, a Fairbanks Republican, said that someday the general fund support for the university will level off or drop, and the university will have to turn to land development or corporations for financial support.
Lawmakers told the students that state revenues from oil and gas would drop, a budget reserve fund is declining, and voters don't want the Legislature to touch the earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund and reduce its annual dividend.
"Sometime along the line," said Rep. Bill Hudson, a Juneau Republican, "we have to have brave souls who realize we must do something with the dividend," such as capping it.
"You have to help us get that understanding so we can have enough backbone to do what we know we have to do," he told the students.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.