Amid downturn, more students enrolling at colleges in Alaska

UAF campus has seen an 8.7 percent spike compared to last year

Posted: Monday, September 07, 2009

FAIRBANKS - All it took was a wet summer for Chris Nield to decide he needed a new career.

The 35-year-old Idaho native had worked in masonry since he was 12 years old, learning the brick-and-mortar business and making good money along the way. He moved to Fairbanks in 2005 to help build the new Sportsman's Warehouse building and happily stayed to work construction jobs after starting a family here.

But in July 2008, the rain started, bringing work to a sudden stop. The global economic collapse that followed soon afterward hurt just as much.

"I was traveling so I could find work," he said. "Then I was having to schedule side jobs and do whatever I could just to make a little bit of money."

So Nield did what plenty of frustrated workers are doing - he decided it was time for something new. Nield enrolled in classes at the Tanana Valley Campus, studying toward a career in the energy sector.

He seems to have plenty of company. As the economy has tanked, enrollment has been on the rise at Alaska's public universities. The trend is seen nationwide, particularly at lower-cost state schools, as workers pursue more education to compete in a lean job market.

Although final enrollment figures won't be in for a few more weeks, the numbers are up at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and campuses throughout the state. The UAF campus has seen an 8.7 percent spike compared to the same date a year earlier, and the Tanana Valley Campus is up 5.7 percent. Overall, the UA system has seen a 5.2 percent enrollment increase from the same point in 2008.

Saichi Oba, the assistant vice president for student and enrollment services at the University of Alaska, said officials got the first hint in February that the depressed economy was pushing more students to post-secondary education. Requests for financial aid suddenly jumped by 22 percent, indicating both higher interest and more need for school funds.

"The (weak) economy does help us," Oba said. "When it goes down, people do go back to school."

Scott Goldsmith, an economics professor with the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research, said slow economic times affect higher education in a few ways. Many unemployed people choose to go to school rather than wait for a job, and some people who have jobs seek out extra training to make sure they can keep them.

"It's kind of a one-two punch," Goldsmith said.

But the enrollment boost is probably more complex than just a shift in the work force. Mike Earnest, the admissions director at UAF, noted that boom-bust financial forces at work in Alaska often differ from those in other parts of the country. Some of the higher enrollment numbers may simply be more Alaska freshmen choosing to stay home to pay in-state tuition.

When enrollment spiked in the early 2000s, Oba said, part of the result was because of the maturing UA Scholars program, which gives free tuition to the top academic achievers at Alaska high schools.

But Nield said he can sense a difference in the makeup of his classes this year compared to last and figures the "construction-looking guys" who arrived for the first day of school on Thursday probably have stories similar to his.

"There's a little more dirt on the guys this time," he said with a smile.

Nield is cautiously hopeful that his career change will help him out in the long run, giving him a boost on emerging energy jobs in hydroelectric or geothermal power generation. With three young boys at home, he wants his two-year process technology degree - which can attract jobs of $75,000 per year or more - to offer more stability than the masonry business did.

"I don't want to get too optimistic about the job market," Nield said, "but I hope there's something out there."

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