Alaska editorial: Support educational improvements called for in UAA study

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2008

University of Alaska Anchorage's researchers at the Institute of Social and Economics Research titled their report "The University of Alaska: How Is It Doing?"

Some of the numbers and conclusions suggest another title: "Alaska K-12 Education: How Is IT Doing?"

Authors Theodore Kassier and Alexandra Hill found that 28 percent of those enrolled as full-time freshmen at UA in 2006 didn't come back for their sophomore years. That's a sobering number, but not far off the national average of 23 percent.

More striking was the difference in how many students graduate. Nationally, 56 percent of students who set out to get a four-year degree in 2000 earned that degree within six years. In Alaska, the corresponding number was 28 percent - that's half the national rate.

The researchers concluded that many of the students who enroll at any of the UA campuses - 90 percent are Alaskans - are not prepared for college-level work. The University of Alaska is an open enrollment school. That doesn't mean that anyone can waltz in and embark on a bachelor's degree program, but it does mean that any student with a high school diploma, a 2.5 grade-point average and the money for tuition can sign up for a bachelor's degree program. That's not the case at all public universities.

"Part of the explanation of low graduation rates is that so many freshmen aren't academically prepared when they reach UA," the ISER report said. A 2006 report found that as many as two-thirds of UA's entering freshmen were not up to college-level math and English. So UA inherits a remedial task.

Numbers need context, however. Linda Lazzell, UAA's vice chancellor for student affairs, points out that only a fraction - about 1,500 out of 32,000 of UA's students, are traditional, full-time, four-year degree, just-out-of-high school freshmen. Students don't finish four-year degrees in four years or six or eight for many reasons - finances, work and family obligations, changes in career choices. Some students may excel at college level in some disciplines, but need remedial work in another. Some students may attend schools Outside. Others may join the ranks of UA's part-time students, who make up 62 percent of the total statewide and who were not included in the ISER report. And others may excel in certification and two-year degree programs.

But these essential facts are troubling: One-third of Alaska high-school students don't graduate. Another third graduate but don't go on to college. About two thirds of those who do go on to college here aren't fully prepared.

That has to change. The job market and life in general increasingly demand at least some post-secondary education to prosper.

The ISER researchers had no off-the-shelf solutions, but some of their recommendations make sense - closer work with schools at the K-12 level, increased aid for low-income students (lawmakers and the governor added $2.5 million this year), more programs for Native students like UAA's nationally recognized engineering program, and increased programs at remote campuses.

Lazzell said UAA's focus was to improve cooperation with the K-12 level. She encourages students to take the most rigorous courses they can handle in high school so college demands won't come as a shock. And she said the university needs to do better in providing advisers to students, and enough general education courses to open bottlenecks en route to degrees.

She said the university doesn't want something it is doing or not doing to be the reason students drop out.

And we all might think about those things that successful Native students said were keys to their success - support from families, teachers and employers, and a simple refusal to give up, no matter what the obstacles. When those qualities are part of Alaska's standard curriculum, we'll have more students with staying power and graduation rates for the books.

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