Big changes are coming to higher education on the North Slope. Following approval of an ordinance change at this month's North Slope Borough Assembly meeting, Iḷisaġvik College is now on track to start offering its first four-year degree program.
"I couldn't be more pleased and excited for what that means for the future of the college, of the North Slope, of higher education here and even for the state," said Dr. Pearl Kiyawn Brower, president of the college. "This is really quite a momentous occasion and I would say there's been a lot of vision that has been involved in this for what we want our future to be."
Iḷisaġvik is the only tribal college in the state. Currently, it's accredited to run two-year associate degree programs and issue vocational certificates.
However, the idea of starting a full bachelor's degree program has been in the works for some time. About a year ago, the academic department, the dean and the business faculty approached Brower, saying they'd been hashing out plans for a more advanced program.
The first program considered was in elementary education, sorely needed to certify more local grade-school teachers for the area, Brower said.
"So, we'd been working on this concept but because we didn't really have a feeder program already here at the college, we didn't necessarily know that we'd have all the people (we'd need)," she said.
What Iḷisaġvik did already have, though, was a strong business department, headed by assistant professor David Rice.
"We surveyed as many students as we could and about 80 percent have indicated they would like to go on in business and get their bachelor's degree," Rice explained. "All the feedback we've gotten from past and future students has been really positive."
The college completed a series of feasibility studies and then figured out what would be necessary to launch the program.
The ordinance that establishes the college in the North Slope Borough Municipal Code only had provisions for the shorter programs, so it needed to be changed.
"In October, our board of trustees passed a resolution encouraging and requesting the assembly change the ordinance and they did so very excitedly," said Brower. "Since September, I have been working with the law department through the process of how an ordinance is changed."
It went before the assembly earlier this month and passed unanimously.
The next step is to get the four-year accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which has overseen Iḷisaġvik's two-year tracks.
"We're expecting an accreditation visit sometime later in the spring and our hope is that in the fall we can start offering some of the classes to support a four-year degree program," Brower said.
While having a more advanced program will be good for the college itself, faculty say they hope the payoff will be immense for students.
"It gives a lot of our students who have graduated an opportunity to go on for a bachelor's degree," said Rice. "Most of our students work full-time up here while they're (in school). They have good jobs, their families are here, so it's hard for them to go off-Slope to get their bachelor's degree. This really opens up a lot of opportunities for them to stay here and continue to work but continue with their education."
In addition, he hopes the program will provide a greater flow of locally hireable residents into the North Slope workforce.
"There are a lot of really good jobs up here. A lot of the jobs that require a bachelor's degree oftentimes have to hire somebody from off-Slope and transfer them up here for those jobs," Rice said. "Before we decided to do this, we interviewed employers up here and they would prefer to hire locals. We expect to work very closely with organizations up here to make sure that our students are getting internships and training so when they graduate they can take the positions that are up here."
Brower also sees potential for other students around the state, especially tribal and rural students, to get higher business degrees that are applicable to the lives they live every day.
"One of the things that's really great about our business program already is that they use so many real-world, rural, Alaska Native issues throughout the curriculum in their classes, so students get a real picture of what it is that we're dealing with in the state," she said.
"I think that's a key piece of how students can be supported and grow with a program like our business administration program. Having that indigenous context allows students to feel more connected and more comfortable with the curriculum — more like it pertains to them, that it is a part of what they deal with every single day. They can relate to it. I think that's a key piece of this puzzle."
A key issue that students and college administrators are keenly aware of is the current fiscal situation statewide. Cuts have been made to academic programs across Alaska and pitching the idea of expanding offerings in such a fiscal climate was daunting.
"As we went into this, we knew that adding programs right now would need to be done in a fiscally responsible manner," Brower said.
The way Iḷisaġvik plans to keep its finances in check is by offering concurrent courses, meaning having the same faculty member teach more than one class at once to students of different levels.
For example, a main course could cover topics applicable to both second- and third-year students, with discussion sections and work assignments tailored to their grade level.
Brower estimates the program will not cost more than $30,000 per year to implement and offer, and she expects to be able to hire additional adjunct professors to help teach new courses.
"If you think about offering a four-year degree program at a higher-education institution, that is almost mind-blowing," she said. "I can't even imagine what this would cost elsewhere. The way we're able to do that is because we have a low student-to-faculty ratio. We're able to use that to our benefit. We're going to be able to stack classes."
While some of the finer points of the program still have to be ironed out, Brower said that more than anything, she's glad the possibility is out there.
"This is really momentous. This is really a huge, huge deal and our board of trustees, our whole college family is so excited for what this means for the future of our institution and the future of supporting our residents across the North Slope," she said. "It's a really bright road ahead and I'm really excited."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.