Despite funding cuts, the University of Alaska is reinventing itself

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These are gloomy times. It’s December, and it’s dark. Vaccines are arriving but COVID-19 will be with us for a while. Our economy is suffering. We need some good news.

Consider our University of Alaska. Not too long ago things looked bleak for our state university. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s first budget director, Donna Arduin, wanted to gut UA with a 41% cut to state funding. Her vision for our university was a community college operating at a rock-bottom budget.

Nothing wrong with community colleges, but we need more than that.

Luckily, the governor had second thoughts. Arduin is gone now. Dunleavy agreed to a less drastic three-year stepdown in state funds (he really does have a state budget problem on his hands). This allowed the university to gradually adjust and continue functioning.

Dunleavy stuck to his end of the bargain. The university absorbed two years of reductions and will cut more next year, the third.

But challenges transform institutions, and we see that starting to happen. Look at how the university moved quickly to help in the COVID-19 crisis:

• Dr. Tom Hennessy, infectious disease epidemiologist and faculty at University of Alaska Anchorage, provided key advice to the state on pandemic response.

• UAA’s Small Business Development Center helped businesses obtain hundreds of millions of dollars of federal aid, as well as providing technical assistance.

• All three of state universities, University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Southeast along with UAA, helped manufacture hand sanitizer, 3-D printed face shields, ventilator parts and viral transport media.

• University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists worked with the state virology lab to increase testing capacity.

• The school of nursing graduated and licensed 75 senior nursing students early to help health providers pressed by the pandemic.

• University of Alaska Anchorage tested wastewater to detect COVID-19.

The university stepped in to train specific skills in short supply during the crises, such as in IT support; infection contact-tracing and in childcare.

It’s also impressive how university quickly adapted, almost overnight, to online classes when the pandemic hit last spring.

According to university data, at the University of Alaska Anchorage, 80% of student credit-hour (or revenue-generating) classes are online, compared with 22% in 2019. At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, 76% of credit hours are now offered online, compared with 38% last year, and at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, 81 percent of credit hour classes are online, compared with 41% in 2019.

It helped of course that a lot of classes were online already, and that students are tech-savvy.

The rapid expansion of online teaching is now opening new opportunities for UA to attract students in rural communities and from outside the state. Fields like Arctic research, where UAF has long been strong, fisheries and new areas of research like renewable energy applications in small community power grids, are attracting students.

Let’s look at how the market – Alaska students – is responding. Despite the pandemic, it appears student retention will be up from fall to the spring semester, and new student applications for the spring to the university are actually up 10% from last year, the university says. That’s a powerful signal of confidence.

UA itself is getting more aggressive in marketing its ability to educate and train skilled professionals and workers. Forty thousand Alaskans are now unemployed, so it’s a great time to go back to school to upgrade skills.

A number of accelerated degree and certificate programs have been organized to help upgrade skills or develop new ones to get back to work as the economy recovers. In my own field, journalism, innovations in course development and targeted support from funders is now allowing the UAA’s Department of Journalism and Public Communications to grow.

A strong university not only helps keep talented young Alaskans in the state who might otherwise go out of state for school, but University of Alaska graduates also tend to continue living and working in the state.

Data shows that 63% of UAA-graduating engineers remain in Alaska, with 58% of these in Anchorage; 65% of UAF graduates stay in Alaska, with 31% of these in Fairbanks; 24% in Anchorage and the remainder living in other communities.

Meanwhile, one innovative program that is building admissions (this is revenue, remember) is dual enrollment, where higher-level high school students take university classes. This helps them graduate early.

All three universities have programs like these, but UAA’s Middle College School has doubled its enrollment of high school students in the last year. UAA’s Alaska Native in Science and Engineering Program, or ANSEP, has its own version of this, drawing students from rural communities.

What’s important is that most high school students in dual enrollment tend to enroll in one of the three Alaska universities when they graduate from high school.

It’s not all a bed of roses, of course. University of Alaska enrollment has been trending down slowly for years, basically in line with declining high school populations. New students in fields like engineering dropped sharply after 2016, when oil prices crashed and an economic recession set in.

Things appear to be stabilizing now, thanks to the university’s marketing.

What’s critical now is stability, and this is why the governor’s commitment to honor the three-year budget deal is important. When the stepdown in funding is complete, the university will be able to assure students and parents that classes will be offered, and faculty will be there.

With stability, the UA may be able to gradually re-establish some programs cut sharply in recent years. I make a pitch for liberal arts, because a university should be more than a factory producing a trained workforce. It should produce educated, well-rounded citizens who understand history and are able to think critically through all the noise in modern society.

I believe there’s a connection between rising political polarization and the decline of teaching of liberal arts and humanities. People need to be educated to be open-minded to differing views. Let’s not forget this as our university rebuilds itself.

Tim Bradner is copublisher of the Alaska Economic Report and Alaska Legislative Digest.

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