The state's economy suffers when businesses go searching for qualified nurses, engineers and other skilled workers in the Lower 48, according to University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton.
Hamilton said Friday at a forum in Juneau on Alaska's so-called "brain drain" that the exodus of young people to universities outside of Alaska in the 1990s has resulted in an "unseen import tax" to recruit workers from outside.
"We lost 30,000 citizens between the ages of 18 and 30," Hamilton said. "When you lose that kind of youth, you're losing passion, you're losing different ideas. ... You can't continue to run a state where we import talent."
Hamilton and University of Alaska student leaders are at the Capitol this week making their annual pitch for increased university funding. This year the university is asking the state for $10.5 million in additional funding.
Diane Barrans, director of the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, said the group is working to change Alaska's ranking as last in the nation for its rate of students attending college.
She said 28 percent of 19-year-olds in the state attend some form of postsecondary education. Alaska is 38th in the nation for its rate of high school graduates, she said.
"This is clearly a catastrophic situation if you're looking at building a state," she said.
Barrans said the commission is beginning a campaign this year targeting sixth-, eighth- and 11-graders, to encourage them to begin thinking early about attending college in the state.
Elizabeth Schoenfeld, 15, a junior at Juneau-Douglas High School and staff member for Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anch., polled her classmates and found that most weren't interested in postsecondary education in the state.
"They want warm weather. They want bigger schools," she said. "I was just disappointed to find that they didn't know much about Alaska schools."
Hamilton said the reasons given to Schoenfeld for not wanting to stay in the state after high school - a desire to see the world, lack of opportunities in activities and sports, larger and more diverse campuses - are the same as those he hears from students across the state.
House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anch., told University of Alaska students that they need to organize and support candidates that will push for university funding.
"That means you have to be actively involved in the lobbying effort," Berkowitz said. "You have to actively be involved in the politics, in the campaigns. You have to reward your friends and punish your enemies."
Trevor Fulton, 25, University of Alaska Anchorage student body vice president, said he and other students are lobbying lawmakers for additional funding, and asking them to craft a long-range fiscal plan for the state.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.