Why many Alaska students never come back from college -- and how to change that

My son is making some of the biggest decisions of his life this year, as he chooses a college and a career. As an Alaskan father, that means I'm getting ready to see him leave, maybe for good.

In most of the country, students have a choice of higher education options near home. They often return after school to work in the city or at least the region where they grew up.

Academically bright Alaska kids who can afford to go away to college more often leave the state. After four years away, with new networks of friends and romantic relationships, they often don't come back.

We tend to export smart kids and import professionals. The numbers are startling.

I got statistics from State Demographer Eddie Hunsinger, of the Alaska Department of Labor, and his colleagues, who combed information from the U.S. Census Bureau and Alaska Permanent Fund dividend records. I also had help with this column from Diane Hirshberg of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Looking at 30-year-olds, Hunsinger found those born in Alaska who still live here are unlikely to have a college degree — only 21 percent have attained a two-year associate degree or higher. For those born in Alaska who live Outside at age 30, the number with degrees is 34 percent, about the same as the nation as a whole.

And 30-year-olds who live in Alaska but were born elsewhere are even better educated. Of that group, 40 percent have a college diploma. The differences get even bigger for advanced degrees.


These well-educated newcomers take jobs that pay well. On average, even in the same industries and jobs, they tend to make more money than young people who grow up here and stay.

Education must be part of this disparity. No other state sends as few of its high school graduates to college as Alaska — only 46 percent, compared to 62 percent nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. We're even farther behind the other states in how many attend college in-state.

Some of this we could fix and some we cannot.

One reason Alaska kids don't go away to school is they can make good money working construction and resource jobs without much extra schooling, at least when they are young. The Alaska occupation with the highest percentage of homegrown workers is construction; teachers and librarians are at the other end of the scale, with the most imported workers. Construction workers make more than twice as much at the same age.

For those who are college-bound, getting out of Alaska is often a priority overriding everything else, even if they plan to come back. I grew up here, but I wanted to see some of the world. (In those days — the oil-rich 1980s — Alaska forgave half my student loans when I returned and was here for more than five years. I would have come back anyway, but that policy did root people here.)

Once they leave for college, some Alaska kids don't come back because our labor market is small and they can do better Outside. Many high-skill industries barely exist here. In the professions, moving to the top level or into specialized work often requires leaving Alaska.

And then there is the economy. My older son got his architecture degree last year and dearly wanted to return to Alaska — and still hopes to — but jobs here were scarce and he got an excellent offer in Minneapolis.

Now my younger son is considering his choices. Touring colleges with him made me realize how appealing they are.

My son can afford a private college because his extended family began saving when he was born, with regular gifts from grandparents, all of his PFDs, and investment earnings that accumulated over the years. With financial aid and some debt, it will work.

That position gives him an extraordinary range of options. These schools see high school seniors as customers and are competing vigorously — and improving rapidly. Students today can pick schools for the physical environment, food, educational philosophy, academic specialty, political bias, spiritual outlook, social setting and many other qualities.

We don't have competition in Alaska. We have a single state university and one tiny, struggling private college, Alaska Pacific University.

State policy has concentrated on boosting the number of Alaska students who go to college by holding down the price of the University of Alaska and offering generous scholarships to students who do well in high school. Those are good goals, but they cut against increasing choices. With college costs so low, private schools cannot compete.

APU's tuition is quite low compared to other private colleges — probably suspiciously low for students looking at it from Outside — but far higher than the price students pay just down the road at UAA.

Bad decisions narrowed our choices as well. The 1980s merger of the University of Alaska Anchorage with Anchorage Community College created an entity that tries to do everything. UAA never overcame its muddled identity and amorphous mission.

I've learned from visiting colleges the strongest schools know who they are and what they are trying to accomplish. Far beyond mascots and school colors, students and faculty rally around a shared sense of what's important and how they want to impact the world.

The University of Alaska faces declining state funds and an increasing demand to produce workers who can make it in a tough economy. The pressure for efficiency and consolidation will be great, as well as emphasis on teaching practical job-related skills.

Instead, it might be time to go the other way, creating competing choices within the university, with local autonomy and a diversity of educational goals and philosophies.


We need our university to be more than inexpensive and competent. We also need it build an Alaskan culture of excellence, one that extends for more than a single generation at a time.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

Correction: This article originally misspelled Diane Hirshberg's name as Diane Hirschberg.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.