OPINION: Who pays for college? It shouldn’t be public school districts.

In her most recent State of the University report, University of Alaska President Pat Pitney spoke proudly of dual-enrollment (or “middle college”) programs, noting that middle colleges play an important role in the university’s training of future generations of Alaska workers.

It was news to me, then, that the university does little to nothing to actually fund dual-enrollment programs. Though the university counts middle college programs among its accomplishments, the bulk of the financial investment is shouldered by Alaska’s public school districts.

Middle college programs fall under Board of Regents Policy 10.05.015, and are agreements made between local public school districts and University of Alaska campuses. In Fairbanks, it’s called North Star Middle College, and it’s set up as a lottery-admission high school of choice for up to 90 juniors and 90 seniors. If admitted, they attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks full time and receive both high school and college credit; some are able to graduate high school with an associate’s degree under their belts as well as their diplomas.

This sounded pretty great to me — until I realized the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District was footing virtually 100% of the bill. Tuition, books and student fees — all expenses but parking — are paid by the school district. UAF doesn’t so much as give a discount on tuition.

The same model is apparently used by every middle college program in Alaska, with the notable exception of Prince William Sound Community College (which offers dual enrollment funded directly by the Department of Education). Every other UA campus has a middle college program where a public school district pays the bill.

According to UA in Review, just under 3,600 high school students were enrolled in UA dual enrollment programs across the state in FY2023, for a total of almost 29,000 student credit hours. That means that even though Alaska is in the middle of a public education funding crisis, the University of Alaska charged over $8 million in tuition alone to Alaska’s public school districts in FY23.

Other criticisms of middle college programs aside — like the fact that teenaged high schoolers are unsupervised full-time on campus (special shout-out to the 17-year-old North Star Middle College student who took my pass/fail yoga class at UAF last semester, who napped through every class) — I take issue with the funding. Here in Fairbanks, the elementary school my kids attend was considered for closure not because it’s half-empty, or because the building is decrepit, or even because it performs poorly. No; it faced potential closure solely as a cost-saving measure in a desperate attempt to balance the school district’s budget. Closing it would have saved $1.4 million.


At the same time, North Star Middle College is on the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District budget for $2 million. That’s correct: Its costs exceed what would have been saved by closing an entire elementary school of 400-plus kids, all so that 180 high schoolers could have two years of free college.

Our public school districts are not meant to pay for college, and the fact that they’re doing so anyway for a select few is impeding their ability to provide basic services for everyone else. For me, the takeaway is that if the university truly values middle college programs and finds them to be the effective college and workforce development tools they purport them to be, then the university needs to be the one to pay for them. Public school districts are struggling to keep school doors open. They simply don’t have the money to gift associate’s degrees to their graduating classes in addition to high school diplomas.

Sarah Lewis is a lifelong Alaskan living in Fairbanks. She is a parent, photographer and archivist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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