OPINION: Working to help stop Alaska’s ‘brain drain’

Editor’s note: This commentary has been altered from its original published form to correct the status of Outer Coast as a two-year institution of higher education.

The Alaska House of Representatives recently voted unanimously to increase merit scholarships for high school graduates pursuing college or technical training in-state. This vote marks one of many efforts to retain promising young Alaskans in the face of steady outmigration from the state.

It’s not surprising that our state leaders share the conviction that retaining talent is essential for Alaska’s future. The ongoing stewardship of Alaska’s lands and waters, our economic vitality, and the health of our communities and cultures depend greatly on the engagement of young people.

However, educational opportunities and social mobility remain limited here, especially for Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans. Alaska ranks lowest in the nation in six-year graduation rates at four-year institutions. College enrollment is declining even faster in Alaska than the nation as a whole, particularly for low-income students.

One of the most important ways we can motivate young Alaskans to invest in our state is to ensure they have access to opportunities in higher education that value their backgrounds and match their potential. Outer Coast, a new two-year institution of higher education in Sitka, for which I lead outreach, aspires to be one such institution.

Since our founding in 2015, we have offered six academic Summer Seminars for high school students and are presently running the fourth iteration of the Outer Coast Year, a nine-month, credit-bearing postsecondary program for recent high school graduates. In keeping with our commitment to making higher education accessible, we meet the full financial needs of all of our students and prioritize serving those historically marginalized by higher education. Close to half of the students we have served have been Alaskans, many of whom come from rural backgrounds.

Now, after six years of summer and gap year programs, we are preparing to realize our longstanding goal: opening a two-year liberal arts undergraduate program.


Come August, our inaugural cohort of twenty students will arrive on our campus on the historic site of Sheldon Jackson College. During the two years they spend in Sitka, they will receive an interdisciplinary liberal arts education that simultaneously draws from European and Indigenous traditions. While earning college credit, they will take seminars across various disciplines, from ecology to writing to philosophy, with an emphasis on the study of languages, histories, ecosystems, and cultures of Sitka and Southeast Alaska.

“Here, I can be myself and I still have the support that I need. In academics, one of the most exciting things is that in Indigenous Studies I get to learn from Alaska Native role models. This is the first time I am getting to do something like that,” said Tukaan Dan, a current Outer Coast Year student who grew up in Anchorage.

Because our undergraduate program is intentionally small, students are immersed in the project of community-building. Indeed, learning to live with one another — and as residents of Sitka — is as much a part of their education as any particular class assignment. They take up responsibilities rarely afforded to college students, like admitting future cohorts of students and helping hire faculty. They commit upwards of fifteen hours a week to service projects with community partners across town, which have included the bicycle co-op, the local radio station, the Sitka Maritime Heritage Society, and the Herring Protectors.

“We get to meet a lot of people in the community. I don’t think that that would happen the same way at a bigger university. Hearing their stories and getting to learn both inside and outside of the classroom, has helped me understand more about who I am,” said Losi Siulua, an Outer Coast alum and graduate of East Anchorage High School. “Outer Coast has given me a voice for myself that I didn’t know I had.”

After spending many of my formative childhood years in Wrangell, I attended college in the Lower 48 and returned to Alaska this past fall to join the team at Outer Coast. My work here feels connected to uplifting each student in all areas that lead to a meaningful life, not just in academics. In my prior roles as a student, educator, and coach, I have seen education through many lenses — and I chose to come to Outer Coast because I genuinely believe it is one of the most life-changing opportunities available to students from my home state.

More than one-third of our young people leave Alaska for the Lower 48. Alaska needs transformative educational opportunities for young people that make them compelled to stay in their home state. Outer Coast is one of them.

Reyn Hutten is the Recruitment Lead for Outer Coast, a new, two-year liberal arts institution of higher education in Sitka.

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