University of Alaska regains stability after years of cuts and turmoil, president says
UA President Pat Pitney, in her State of the University address, celebrated increases in enrollment and research funding and touted workforce-development potential
One of the outdoor sculptures at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus is integrated into a fountain, pictured here on May 16. More than half of the University of Alaska system students attend UAA or one of its satellite campuses. Overall system enrollment has ticked up after years of budget cuts and declines, university President Pat Pitney said in her annual State of the University address. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
After nearly a decade of budget-slashing, turmoil, uncertainty and declines, the state’s university system is now steadied and growing, University of Alaska President Pat Pitney said on Tuesday.
“I am thrilled to share: the University of Alaska has turned the corner,” Pitney said in her State of the University address, delivered to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. “We have fiscal stability for the first time in nine years, and this spring, a growing student body.”
Enrollment as of mid-February totaled 17,734, slightly more than 2% above the enrollment at the same point of the spring 2022 semester, according to university figures. That compares to annual declines of 8% from the fall of 2018 to the fall of 2021.
More than half of the currently enrolled students are at the University of Alaska Anchorage or its affiliated community colleges. A little over a third are at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and its affiliated colleges, and about 10% are at the University of Alaska Southeast and its community branches, according to the statistics.
State funding for the university fell by $55 million from 2019 to 2022. But that decrease was partially offset this year, as it rose by nearly $47 million.
In her speech, Pitney shared other “very exciting news” about increasing funding for university research.
Pitney promoted the university system as critical to addressing the state’s economic challenges, starting with its lack of workers.
“Today, we have 25,000 fewer working-age adults in Alaska than we did 10 years ago. We are facing acute shortages in key sectors of our communities – teaching, health care, CPAs and construction workers, just to name a few. Our universities are a big part of the solution to meet those workforce needs.”
Between its three universities and their associated community branches, located from Ketchikan in Southeast to Kotzebue in the Arctic, there are programs that range from “short-term workforce development to Ph.D. programs recognized as the best in class globally,” Pitney said.
Getting Alaskans to attend those universities and enroll in those programs is a key first step to meeting workforce challenges, Pitney said.
National statistics show that 80% of graduates settle and establish their careers within 100 miles of the colleges where they received their degrees, Pitney said. That pattern goes for Alaska as well, she said. Of the 44,000 degrees and certificates awarded in the last 10 years, 80% were working in Alaska within a year after graduation, she said. In contrast, she pointed to a state Department of Labor and Workforce analysis that showed that among Alaska’s 2005 high school graduates, only a quarter of those receiving college degrees outside of the state wound up back in Alaska in 2021.
Also keeping students at home is the Alaska Performance Scholarship program, the state’s four-year merit scholarship. However, the program was under threat for several years, “shattering the confidence of the high schoolers.” Two years ago, when it appeared that the program’s funding would be wiped out, Pitney said she had to promise to fund the scholarships out of the university’s own budget until a legislative fix to the higher education fund was achieved.
This year, 1,823 students have received roughly $7.1 million in Alaska Performance Scholarships.
“I’m incredibly thankful to the Legislature for enacting a solution last spring and restoring the stability of the Alaska Performance Scholarships,” she said. “It’s a pathway for hundreds of our Alaska students to be our workforce and future leaders. It is critical.”
Making college more accessible, through “innovation and flexibility,” helps attract nontraditional students, she said. As an example, she mentioned UAA’s 49th Finishers Scholarship program, which she said has helped more than 200 students with partial college educations achieve the final steps to graduation. “There are more people in Alaska, on a per-capita basis, that have started a degree that have not completed it than any other state in the U.S. So this is a big deal for us,” she said.
She mentioned the university’s nationally recognized drone research program. “I am convinced that in a few short years, Alaska is positioned to be the first state in the nation to have a commercial drone industry,” she said. That’s because of UAF’s Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, she said. “Imagine what that could mean for shipping to villages or remote mines, or wildlife management, or monitoring coastal erosion, pipelines, wildfires – there are applications that change the economic landscape of our huge geography.”
Mariculture is another sector stimulated by the university system. With the assistance of the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Science, UAF’s Sea Grant program and the USA Applied Fisheries program, “the state’s goal for a $100 million mariculture industry is within reach,” she said, referring to a goal set by the state’s Mariculture Task Force.
Last year’s university research expenditures totaled $182 million, with UAF accounting for 89% of that total, Pitney said. The funding “comes to Alaska because of quality faculty and the focus and infrastructure built over decades,” she said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
As for external research funding, the university in 2022 had more than 1,200 active grants representing more than $900 million in multiyear award commitments, according to spokesman Jonathon Taylor.
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