Alaska has a hard time graduating college students. The state has finished dead-last in the percentage of high school graduates attending college in most years since 1997. The author of a 2008 U.S. Department of Education study declared Alaska's "'student pipeline' the leakiest in the U.S."
Why such a poor showing?
One assumption is that Alaskans can make a good living without a college degree, from construction, oil, mining, tourism and fisheries. Another is that many young Alaskans aren't ready for college when they get out of high school.
A new research effort aims to replace these assumptions with facts by analyzing the different paths Alaska students actually take for the first six years after high school. Do they go straight to college? Do they work? Do they combine work and school, full- or part-time? Do they leave the state but come back?
And most importantly, six years down the road, how did their early decisions affect their employment and earning power?
To identify paths, researchers are crunching data from 40,000 Alaskans who left high school from 2004 to 2008. Data come from the Alaska departments of labor, education and early childhood development, and corrections.
To extract the story in these numbers, analysts from a federally funded regional education lab in Portland, Ore., (REL Northwest) are teaming up with educators and policymakers across Alaska in what's called the Alaska State Policy Research Alliance (ASPRA).
The Alaskans involved come from up and down the education hierarchy, including Commissioner of Education Mike Hanley, state board of education members, legislative committee chairs and representatives from the governor's office. Advisors include K-12, university and technical educators, Alaska Native groups and professional and business community members.
On Wednesday, the Portland researchers and their Alaska partners gathered at UAA to hear some preliminary findings. In addition to understanding exactly what all young Alaskans do after high school, the project specifically plans to examine how Alaska Natives and rural students move through their post-high school choices. The final report is due in May 2014.
With the first sprinkling of raw numbers, everyone quickly realized the data researchers were wrestling with are massive, complex and when you get right down to what you want to know -- often incomplete.
An example: For those 40,000 students, researchers identified 14,000 different paths! Not exactly helpful. An early first step will be to narrow those paths to a number even possible to evaluate.
Organic to Alaska
The afternoon before their report, I sat down with Diane Hirshberg, the director of an education policy research center at UAA, called CAEPR, which is participating in the study. I wanted to know what to expect from the early findings, and the likely audience for results. Would parents with children in middle school care? Would a college student change majors based on the findings?
That's all possible, she said, but the key audience is people who make decisions about education in the state. Both the Portland-based analysts and ASPRA members are keenly focused on increasing the use of research-based evidence to inform decisions about education.
Hirshberg described the effort as the first statewide conversation about what it means for Alaska students to be "college, career and community ready."
As of May 2013, about 10 states already had developed their own definitions, and now are creating education policies to support them. That's where Alaska wants to go, including developing the accountability metrics to show progress or failure.
Hirshberg said there are many individual efforts to better align K-12 with higher education. UAA's Department of English has met with the ASD English Department, and the Math Department at UAF has met with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.
"But none of that is statewide. So, if you're in Tuntutuliak, are you even getting the same message?" she asked.
ASPRA has ambitions to change that, she said. "We've paid attention to the fact that we are sitting in indigenous lands, and Alaska Native views on this are as important as those of white educators.
"Many of them say it's not enough just to have kids ready to go on to college. Are they also a good member of their community? Being a good subsistence hunter is part of how you are a good member of your community. That's a piece of this conversation."
Indeed, Hirshberg said, there should be no conflict for a young man learning how to be a whaling captain, and also planning to study engineering at the university. "We recognize that our students have multiple lives," she said, "and they have to be competent in their community, whatever that community is."
Her own thinking has been influenced by the North Slope Borough School District and how it has incorporated Inupiaq learning into school curricula.
"They're talking about what it means to be a whole person," she said, "and academic learning is part of that, but so is spiritual knowledge, and community participation in subsistence and cultural activities. All of that is what makes you a whole person."
As far as ASPRA improving Alaska's future education performance, stay tuned. Like your computer with its swirling rainbow ball, the Portland researchers and their Alaska advisors are "working, working, working" over their massive data pool.
The good news, Hirshberg says, is it's not happening in a vacuum, either in Juneau or inside the university. The stakeholders are all at the table.
Now, can they move the dial?
Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.