University of Alaska’s Future in Flux

erin-laughlinBY ERIN LAUGHLIN
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong

The UA system employs 923 fewer people and has eliminated or suspended 50 academic programs due to a 53 million dollar decrease in funding over the past three years.

In the upcoming year the budget faces a daunting 20 percent decrease in funding. This is a larger decrease in one year than the system has seen over three years according to UA President Jim Johnsen during his annual State of the University address.

President Johnsen delivered his address to a packed house at the Alaska Chamber and the Juneau Chambers Business Roundtable lunch series in the Hangar Ballroom on Feb. 16.

In the address he also outlined the challenges facing the upcoming lean budget. The UA system faces a wide arrangement of short and long-term challenges.

Maintenance and researchers

Backlogged building maintenance, keeping prestigious researchers, and the UA system’s reliance on the state are short-term challenges.

Across the University system, building maintenance has racked up almost 1 billion dollars in expenses that remains ignored due to insufficient funds.

In President Johnson’s presentation of the University’s FY18 Operating Budget to the Senate Finance Committee he said, “1 dollar of state research investment generates 4.1 in research dollars.”

While the investment into researchers is extremely profitable for the University, Alaska faces the challenge of competition with other states. Potential budget constraints threaten the ability to recruit faculty who generate precious research dollars.

Vulnerable to state reliance
The major short-term challenge that the UA system is facing is our reliance on the state for funding. The percentage of our budget that comes from the state is amongst some of the highest in the nation, according to President Johnson.
In an economic boom, reliance on the state can be beneficial. However, in today’s budget crisis the UA system is in a vulnerable position.
A potential solution to the university’s reliance on the state is the UA Land Grant Deficit Initiative. Land grants to the UA system, dating back to 1864 and 1915 have gone largely unfulfilled by Congress.
“We meet resistance back in Washington DC from those who are fearful that if we take these federal lands and provide them either to the state or anyone outside the federal government, that we might somehow do something with those lands” said Senator Lisa Murkowski during her annual address to the Alaska Legislature Joint Session on Feb. 22.
Land-grant earnings would be of significant assistance in carrying the university across declining state budgets to financial independence.

Effect of “Alaska’s Brain Drain”

Long-term challenges the UA system faces include the weak funneling of Alaska students, importing of teachers, and the future state economy’s demand for an educated workforce.

According to the Alaska Teacher Turnover, Supply, and Demand 2013 Report conducted by the UAA Center for Alaska Education Policy Research, 64 percent of teachers hired by districts statewide are from outside Alaska. The report also explains that teachers who are trained in Alaska have a much lower turnover rate than those from outside the state.

The importing of teachers is a challenge for the UA system since it causes an irreparable education impact on Alaskan students before they even consider college. President Johnsen said, “The single most important in-school factor contributing to K-12 success is the quality of the teacher.”

President Johnsen explained this “brain drain” during his presentation to the Senate Finance Committee. Out of 100 Alaskan 9th graders, only 32 will attend college, 15 of which will enter the UA system. Of the 15 students that enter the UA system only 5 will graduate within 6 years.

Recruitment for students to come to the UA system potentially lies within dual enrollment. “We find that more and more students are graduating high school with a college transcript, which eases the transition from high school into college,” said UAS Chancellor Richard Caulfield. “They’re talking to an advisor, they realize that they can be successful, and they already have some college credits, motivating them to continue with school.”

Education for a prosperous future

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development projects roughly 65 percent of Alaska jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by the year 2025. A common misconception is that “postsecondary” means a four-year degree, when it actually encompasses a wide range of certificates, licenses, vocational, and technical training.

Today, only 37 percent of Alaskan jobs require postsecondary education. This makes Alaska one of two low education and high-income states, the other being Wyoming.

President Johnsen said “Alaskans must know that these cuts exact a serious price on our university’s ability to serve our state’s people, our economy and, most important, our state’s future.”

Watch President Johnsen present the FY18 Operating Budget to the Senate Finance Committee at http://www.akleg.gov/basis/Committee/.

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