Alaska 20/20

State report card: 18 straight years of economic growth, but brain drain is the worst in the nation

Posted: Friday, March 03, 2006

A quality-of-life checkup by nonprofit Alaska 20/20 has found that the state's economy continues to chug along, though its fiscal future is uncertain and its efforts to retain college students lag.

The nonpartisan think tank completed its second annual comprehensive report reviewing education, government, community affairs, the environment and the economy. CEO Ken Osterkamp said only three other states have conducted studies similar to Alaska 20/20's report.

"We're doing pretty well with the economy and the environment," Osterkamp said. "The economy, for example, has had about 18 straight years of job growth - hard to argue with that."

In education, Alaska's collegiate "brain drain" is worst in the nation. In 2002, for every college freshman other states sent to Alaska, the state sent out nine in return, according to the report.

"This is the worst import-export ratio in all 50 states," the report said.

University of Alaska spokeswoman Kate Ripley said that because of the state's isolation, many students born and raised here are eager to experience life somewhere else after graduating.

In the past two to three years, the university kick-started some aggressive recruiting campaigns to keep students in Alaska and reach out to students in the Lower 48, she said. One such successful program automatically awards scholarships to students in the top 10 percent of each Alaska high school graduating class.

The statistics look better now than several years ago, Ripley said. Some five years ago, the university was keeping only 40 percent of Alaska high school graduates who go on to college. Today that number is 53 percent.

University of Alaska Southeast spokesman Kevin Myer said the school is advertising in national magazines and attending college fairs down south to bring in more students.

Junior Jake Bailey, a computer engineering major from Rogersville, Tenn., came to Juneau for its outdoor activities.

"I love to hunt. I love to fish. I like to hike and climb. This is the ideal place for me to do that," he said.

Alaska 20/20

Report findings

Education: Students outperformed national average, but the difference is shrinking.

Economy: Reasonably healthy in Alaska compared to the rest of the nation.

Environment: Data for many environmental indicators are inadequate, hampering management efforts.

Government: Planning for long-term public financing has not been adequately addressed.

Economically, Osterkamp said there are questions about the state government sustaining programs and services. Even during an era of high oil prices and expectations of building a natural gas pipeline, funds for programs are finite, the report said.

"Planning for sustainable long-term public financing has not been adequately addressed," the report said.

In its look at the environment, Alaska 20/20 found biodiversity stable and air and water quality improving. But with some notable exceptions, data for many environmental indicators are inadequate, hampering management efforts, according to the report.

Alaskans generate 50 percent more waste per person than the national average, the report says.

"That would make sense," said city recycling manager Janet Grange. "Everything is packaged and shipped in."

Grange was not sure how Juneau compares to other cities in the Lower 48, but a large portion of the city's trash comes from the packaging used to send goods here by plane, ferry or barge.

According to the report, the cost of shipping recycling materials is high for Alaska communities.

The report said Alaska dumps contain materials not found as frequently elsewhere in the nation, such as hazardous waste, human waste from honey buckets, animal carcasses, dog carcasses, snow machines and petroleum products.

Start-up small businesses have been declining in numbers, the report showed. There were 1,848 new employer businesses in 2004, about 24 percent fewer than the previous year.

Lance Miller, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Center, said that statistic doesn't necessarily mean the economy is bad. Often when times are hard and people are laid off, they apply for business licenses to start their own business.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at

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