University of Alaska struggles with enrollment drop

Posted: Monday, June 26, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- The University of Alaska lost nearly 7 percent of its total enrollment in the last five years, but there are signs of a turnaround.

Enrollment overall is expected to increase in the fall based on applications received so far, university officials said.

Years of budget cuts and faculty losses are blamed for the enrollment drop. The loss of homegrown students to other states, reduced maintenance on aging buildings, a reduction in class offerings and a lack of programs have all reduced enrollment, university officials said.

The state's university system has lost more than 2,000 students since 1995, from 32,481 to 30,249. During the same years, the system lost 10 percent of its faculty and course offerings.

Although university officials primarily blamed a lack of state money for the enrollment decline, Sen. Gary Wilken, a Fairbanks Republican, said the Legislature is an easy target. Other factors -- low unemployment and the university's general ``lack of direction and vision'' -- also contributed to the decline, he said.

Part of the problem, administrators say, is that Alaska has a small pool of high school graduates to begin with, and only a portion of those choose to go to college.

Alaska ranks 36th in the nation in the percentage of students who graduate from high school, a rate of 63.8 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Only 44 percent of those students go on to higher education, said UAF admissions director Mike Mills.

Compounding that problem, Alaska also sends more than half of its college-bound students out of state. Nationally, 17 percent of students left their home state for college in 1996. In Alaska, that figure was 58 percent, Mills said.

The Alaska State Student Loan program, which allows students to take the loan money elsewhere, is one reason Alaska fails to hold on to its students.

Also, the number of majors available at the University of Alaska is half that of most other state universities, said University of Alaska Southeast Dean of Students Bruce Gifford.

``When you cut classes or you cut programs, there aren't going to be as many students. That's just a fact,'' Gifford said.

Traditional students, those who go to college right out of high school, are the ones UA is targeting. But those students are the ones who tend to choose out-of-state schools to escape the isolation they experienced growing up in Alaska. Gifford says UA is trying to reverse this trend with national and international exchange programs.

``I understand somebody that grows up in Juneau wanting to go somewhere else,'' Gifford said. ``We're saying, `Fine, do that, but come back.'''

There are signs UA is bounding back.

A recruitment push at UAS has resulted in a jump of 37 percent in first-time freshmen applications over this time last year. And early registration for credits for the upcoming fall semester -- a possible measure of returning students -- is up 57 percent over this time last year, Gifford said.

``All the signs indicate we're going to have a good fall, so hopefully we've got it turned around,'' Gifford said.

The university received a $34 million funding increase over two years from the state Legislature this spring. Wilken said the Legislature now has more faith in the university.

``Today, we have a university that has a focus and a vision and I think the Legislature has seen that and has chosen to support them again,'' he said.

The new UA Scholars program gives seniors graduating in the top 10 percent of their class $11,000 to attend, which should pay for four years of tuition and fees. Nearly 300 students took advantage of the deal last year and more than 400 are expected to take part this year.

``We haven't put a dam on the brain drain, but we certainly slowed down the flow,'' said university regent Mike Burns.

UAF Admissions Director Mills said UA considers upping enrollment its highest priority. It is using recruiters and hiring consulting firms to sell the university to prospective students. Enrollment is expected to be up system-wide this fall, based on applications received so far.

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