As the Alaska Legislature attempts to wrap up its work for the year, the first wave of fallout from lawmakers' efforts to cut their way out of the current fiscal crisis without any new revenue streams is starting to work through Alaska.
One of the first hit has been the University of Alaska, which is in line to received a $50 million budget slash – nearly a 15 percent reduction in state support for the network of campuses across Alaska. Though the ink isn't yet dry on this cut, the university predicts it will have to cut programs, raise tuition significantly and eliminate about 500 positions to stay anywhere near the black in coming years.
The irony and shortsightedness of this move by lawmakers is immediately obvious to anyone taking a 1,000-foot look at Alaska's current situation. For decades now, Alaska has put all of its eggs in one basket — oil. Oil provided it all — an economic engine to run our state. It built our roads, educated our children and supported our steadily increasing population. But those days are dwindling, analysts say. Whether or not oil prices come up substantially, the decline in production isn't likely to reverse, at least not quickly enough to keep Alaska afloat.
Luckily, Alaska has an ace in the hole — its people. Alaskans are a scrappy group, used to fixing their own problems, often with duct tape and coat hangers. The state is full of people who are driven to live here despite the challenges because of a deep commitment to independence. This is a state of doers, and not a group likely to give up easily.
So when one economic stream dries up, Alaskans are likely to generate another one. There are a few already doing a pretty good job — eco-tourism, science, fishing and aquaculture, even renewable resource development all bring in significant dollars to this state. There's a burgeoning farming movement in some regions thanks to federally funded programs. Heck, we even have a hotel built out of ice.
But one of the things about change is that there is a learning curve. People will have to be retrained for Alaska's economy to expand and diversify. Without a trained workforce, all the great ideas Alaskans come up with will falter. That's where the university comes in.
For decades now, the University of Alaska has been training Alaskans for a very reasonable fee in small classes, often filled with as many returning adult students as young people fresh out of high school. It has been a wonderful resource for those transitioning out of one diminishing sector — like fishing — and into others that are expanding — like the medical field. As a small, state-funded institution, it is responsive to the people it serves, meeting a wide range of needs as our state changes. And now, more than ever, we need that.
If you think state dollars put into the University of Alaska were wasted, consider this: Most of the students at the university come from Alaska, and more than 10 percent come from rural Alaska, where employment opportunities are scarce. Graduates tended to stay in state too, and most take jobs in Alaska's private sector. Others, a 2012 study concluded, were self-employed following their graduation. Taken together, this study paints a picture of university graduates who are able to find work, make a decent living and stay in their state thanks to education offered close to home at a reasonable cost. And that translates into billions of dollars of economic activity.
An argument could be made that we just can't afford the same level of university offerings now that oil dollars that built the university are drying up. But the counter to that argument is that investing in education is always a good idea.
Think about what separates countries with thriving, diverse economies from those that struggle to meet the basic needs of their people and you will almost always come up with one difference: education.
Perhaps some think that once the state's economy rebounds a bit, we can start to rebuild the programs that we cut from the university this year. The problem is that rebuilding is exponentially more difficult and expensive than maintenance. And that goes doubly in an institution where one's reputation is part of its value. Education is a competitive market. Once you begin to lose the esteem and quality of some of the University of Alaska's programs, those students will go elsewhere and another state will receive the economic boost.
As Alaska continues to come to terms with its new identity post oil-dependence, we must reinvent ourselves and rebuild our economy. That will require lots of ingenuity and imagination, but Alaska has plenty of that to spare. A responsive higher education institution close to home and committed to Alaska is the third leg of the stool, however. Cut the University of Alaska's funding and you cut the state's ability to rebound.
Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.
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