APU president says the school can help address Alaska’s outmigration woes

The small liberal arts college, which emphasizes Indigenous knowledge and community engagement, has special features to attract students, she says

By: - April 25, 2023 5:00 am
The Atwood Center at the Alaska Pacific University campus is seen on April 24. The three-building complex is a central feature of the APU campus in Midtown Anchorage. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The Atwood Center at the Alaska Pacific University campus is seen on Monday. The private university, with about 600 students, can play a useful role in keeping young people in the state, the school president told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska Pacific University, with about 600 students, is dwarfed by its next-door neighbor, the University of Alaska Anchorage and its approximately 11,000 students.

But university President Janelle Vanasse said the small private university, which is transitioning into a federally designated tribal college, can play an important role in addressing a sweeping Alaska problem: the continued outmigration of residents, especially young people.

“We may be a small part of a big solution, but I think we can be a key part,” Vanasse told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce on Monday.

The challenges are broad, Vanasse said in a presentation that was relevant to her business-oriented audience. Relying on several statistics, she presented a picture of an Alaska that has, for various reasons, become less attractive to students.

While more than 60% of Anchorage high school graduates who went to college a decade ago chose in-state schools, slightly more than half went outside the state for their college educations by 2020, she said, referring to data from the Alaska Higher Education 2022 Almanac.

Fewer Anchorage high school graduates are even going to college, she said, citing the same source. In 2013, 52% did so, but by 2020 that fell to 37%, she said.

Alaska ranks last among the states in students’ completion of four-year degrees, with a 31% rate, she said, drawing on information from the 2021 almanac. In comparison, Massachusetts had the top spot, with 74% of its students completing their degrees.

For Alaska Native students, there are additional challenges, said Vanasse, who was superintendent of Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a Native boarding school in Sitka, immediately before she came to APU.

While Indigenous students make up about 20% of high school graduates, they account for only 2% of qualified students receiving the state-provided Alaska Performance Scholarships, according to 2019 statistics, she said.

That shows a lot of missed opportunities, she said: “We need to be able to support the continued scholarship of our Alaska Native students.”

Alaska Pacific University President Janelle Vanasse speaks to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce on Monday. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska Pacific University President Janelle Vanasse speaks to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce on Monday. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

That is where status as a tribal college is helpful because of the focus on Indigenous culture, needs and ways of learning, she said.

Citing Lower 48 information from the American Indian College Fund, she said hard data shows that Indigenous students can find it difficult to feel comfortable at college. According to those statistics, 86% of tribal college or university students complete their chosen program of study, but fewer than 10% who go directly from reservation schools to colleges complete their bachelor’s degree.

“Without a sense of belonging, people drop out of college,” she said. “And it’s very, very true for students who come from a minority population,” or for those who are first-generation college students. Many Alaska Natives fall into both categories, she noted.

Currently, about 30% of APU’s students are Alaska Native, up from 20% just a few years ago, Vanasse said. One of the requirements for becoming a federally recognized tribal college is 50%; currently it is considered an Alaska Native-serving college, she said.

For now, Iḷisaġvik College in Utqiagvik is the state’s only tribal college.

APU does not currently have a timeline for becoming eligible for the tribal designation, Vanasse said.

For both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, APU’s distinctive hands-on and community-focused programs can make it an attractive place to get an education.

Much of this is shown in APU’s health-education programs. The university has a partnership with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium; the sprawling ANTHC campus borders APU’s leafy campus.

Health education includes nursing, such as a licensed practical nursing program operating in Bethel and Utqiagvik and about to expand to Juneau and Fairbanks.

There is a new bachelor of science program in environmental public health, she told the chamber audience, “because the reality is, if you look at our communities, especially our rural communities, there’s a lot happening in that environment that is impacting the health and the public health of that community.”

APU is one of the colleges, along with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Colorado, that is serving as a community center for the National Science Foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic research program. Through that program, APU is involved in studies about climate change and resilience in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta; those studies emphasize Indigenous knowledge.

Other signature APU programs are its environmental and sustainability degrees, its marine science degrees, its outdoor programs and its Spring Creek Farm at the Kellogg Campus in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which has a focus on food security, she said.

Much of what APU offers could be considered complementary to the University of Alaska, including the next-door Midtown Anchorage neighbor, UAA, Vanasse said.

“APU doesn’t need to grow by stealing or taking a couple of those people,” she said, referring to a graph showing the two schools’ student enrollment. “What we need to do in the state of Alaska is grow both of those boxes.”


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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.