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Alaska must direct its students toward more education

  • Author: Mark Hamilton
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published August 31, 2008

The University of Alaska now attracts 63 percent of our state's college-bound high school graduates. This was unheard of a dozen years ago, when only 44 percent chose to stay inside Alaska for vocational and career training, community college or a university education.

Back then, the majority of our college-bound high school graduates opted for schools Outside. That meant Alaska lost out on keeping its own talent while Alaska businesses had to import workers, driving up costs.

The 63 percent milestone is good news, but we have a larger challenge. Nationally, Alaska ranks eighth from the bottom for high school graduation. Less than a third of those graduates continue to postsecondary education, here or elsewhere. From that small pool, UA draws the 63 percent.

This must change. Alaska is falling behind.

Let's do away with the tattered argument, "not everybody's college material." The term "college" means far more than four-year degrees. A good chunk of what UA provides is vocational and career education, typical of a community college. These include one- and two-year programs, plus certificates that can be earned within months.

We must do a better job of preparing our young people for college and work. We must encourage more of them to not only finish high school, but do very well. They must reach beyond the "exit exam," which is a floor, not a ceiling. At the university, we must do more to support students who come to us, with better academic and financial aid counseling.

Our state must make this issue a top priority. The nation's secretary of labor predicts two-thirds of all new jobs in the next 10 years will require some level of training and education beyond high school, or considerable on-the-job training. Talk to employers. They're hard-pressed to find qualified people to hire from within our state.

People with higher skills are better off. They earn more money, contribute more to their communities, support commerce and the arts and give more generously to churches and non-profits.

Our statistics indicate Alaska doesn't have a culture that fully values education. Our past provided plentiful jobs in construction, oil, fishing, mining, timber and other blue-collar sectors. Those jobs are still out there, but many of them are changing. Technology used across all sectors requires more training, not less.

A recent report for the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education (ACPE) offers five recommendations:

• Create a statewide college-going culture

• Establish kindergarten-through-college partnerships

• Establish peer mentoring programs

• Build up financial aid awareness and opportunity

• Focus attention on college access by creating a governor's K-16 council

The university supports this.

In partnership with the post secondary education commission and the UA College Savings Program, we reach out to school children as early as second grade. We've pumped up financial aid awareness. We offer dozens of summer and bridging programs for high school students to improve skills and explore careers, everything from auto mechanics to rocket science. We provide tech-prep and dual enrollment programs for high school students to earn college credit while still in high school. And we're now offering high schools e-transcripts, so their graduates can submit transcripts to the university campus of their choice online.

We sought state funding last year for some of the things we call "student success," but didn't get it. Hard to understand, when you know Alaska's rather alarming statistics. We'll try again in January.

Money alone won't ensure student success. Parents, business and civic organizations and our elected leaders must join forces to make education a priority. Importing workers from Outside is one alternative. Educating Alaskans for Alaska's future is the better choice.

Mark Hamilton is president of the University of Alaska.