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University of Alaska needs to focus on nontraditional students and online learning

  • Author: Kirk Wickersham
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 4, 2015

The University of Alaska is just not very good. Or at least, it is not perceived to be. U.S. News and World Report, which publishes a system of college rankings used by high school students, parents and guidance counselors, ranks UAA 68th out of 100 four-year universities in the Western U.S. UAF, my alma mater, is not ranked. And UAS does not even show up on the list.

As a result, Alaska's high school graduates tend to go to college Outside if they can. We export college students at the second-highest rate in the nation. That does not mean there is no one left to go to the U of A. Thirty-four thousand students -- about 5 percent of the state's population -- attend the university.

They are often nontraditional students. For instance, let me tell you about my friend "Betty." Betty is in her mid-20s with four children under the age of 7 and a husband who works a lot of overtime. She homeschools, keeps house, has two side-businesses, stays in shape, attends church, hosts parties for her large extended family, and goes camping and four-wheeling at every opportunity.

Nevertheless, Betty is apparently understimulated, because a couple of years ago she decided to get her degree. She took a hard look at UAA, rejected it and enrolled in an online, private, for-profit university based in the Lower 48. Why?

• All her classes are online. She can do her lecture sections on her own schedule, without paying for parking and babysitters. To get online classes in the UA system, she would have had to apply to, and register, at UAA, UAF and Kodiak. All have different courses, schedules, and requirements. The bureaucratic and academic maze was overwhelming, and there was no one person who could help with all three schools.

• Her classes are five and a half weeks long, with 10 start dates each year. She can move at her own pace. She was guaranteed all the classes she needed to graduate in four years. She can take a one-week challenge track for some entry-level courses.

• She originally enrolled for an associate's degree, but when she switched to a bachelor's degree, all her courses counted. UA could not make that promise.

• Likewise, she had a guaranteed cost -- $59,000, which includes, not only tuition, but all fees and her "books" -- actually online reading materials. So while, at $500 per credit hour, the tuition at the online school is higher than the UA system, the overall cost is lower and, unlike the UA system, it cannot be raised as long as she's working toward her degree.

• The professors and counselors work a 40-hour week. They have no other duties than to teach and help students succeed. So if she needs one-on-one help, she can get it over Skype.

Betty is a consumer of college education. She is not likely to join a sorority, buy season basketball tickets, attend the campus film festival or lead mountaineering expeditions for the Outdoor Club.

Betty is, or should be, the target market for the University of Alaska. And the University of Alaska missed an opportunity with her because it does not prioritize the nontraditional student experience the way the online university does. It seems that the priorities of the University of Alaska are:

• First, maintenance of buildings. In the past eight years, the University system has added 16 major new buildings, comprising hundreds of thousands of square feet, and shuttered none, although enrollment has remained essentially flat.

• Second, negotiated increases in faculty and staff salaries, plus paying the exploding cost of health care;

• Third, finding ways to not lay off employees during budget cuts;

• Fourth, arguably, is athletics. For instance, last fall UAA increased its operating subsidy for the Alaska Airlines Center at the same time that it dropped its chemistry major. Maybe there was a connection, maybe not.

During the Great Recession, no state was hit harder than Arizona. Arizona State University took successive double-digit budget cuts. They used that crisis as an opportunity to transform into a university of the 21st Century. Today, ASU advertises "70 bachelor's and master's degrees available entirely online" on the Anchorage NPR station. Why? Because they can, and because it works for them. They are apparently getting good Alaskan students.

Similarly, the University of Alaska system needs to use our state budget crisis to transform itself into a 21st century university. With the smallest and most geographically dispersed student body in the nation, it needs to commit to standard course offerings, academic calendars, programs and degrees, and centralized, uniform, online delivery. Not in two years, but now.

The university needs to attract and retain great Alaskans like Betty, and if it does that, its budget woes will take care of themselves. But it should also be such a compelling educational experience that it can advertise on the NPR station in Phoenix.

Kirk Wickersham is an Anchorage attorney and real estate broker. He was a regent of the University of Alaska from 2007 to 2015.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com

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