The University of Alaska’s path to even higher education
To provide Alaskans better access to job-ready classes and programs, UA announced a 25 percent discount on tuition on many career and technical education courses, ranging from pharmacy technology to welding.
In 2016 the University of Alaska (UA) launched Strategic Pathways, a plan to “maximize value to Alaska through excellent, accessible, and cost-effective higher education.” An early draft was published in February 2016, and three years later UA has made significant strides in pursuing its goals.
Progress with Pathways
According to UA President Jim Johnsen, “Many of the decisions resulting from the Strategic Pathways process have been implemented or are in the implementation process.” For example, within the UA system there used to be three schools of management, but now there are two; there were several procurement processes that have been streamlined into one; multiple email platforms have been turned into one; and several grants and contracting processes have been simplified to one.
In December 2016, the UA Board of Regents voted to locate the administrative functions of the Alaska College of Education at the University of Alaska Southeast, which now takes on a new leadership role in teacher education for the university system.
Johnsen emphasizes that while a program may be led from one campus, opportunities to participate in that program are still available to students at other locations. “University of Alaska Anchorage [UAA] still has a School of Education, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks [UAF] still has a School of Education, but we felt it was important from a performance and accountability viewpoint to designate one of our campuses as the lead. It’s very similar to the structure we have for our nursing programs. Those are led out of UAA, but we still have nursing programs across the system.” In this framework, the lead campus collaborates with the other programs and plays a vital role in coordinating and aligning the programs available at all three universities.
According to a Strategic Pathways update presented to the UA Board of Regents in September 2018, initiatives involving engineering, teacher education, management/business, fisheries, and mine training programs have been completed, and initiatives related to health programs, arts and humanities, social and natural sciences, human resources, university relations, institutional research, information technology, finance, and facilities and land management are being implemented. General Education Requirement and academic calendar alignment also are being put in place. Looking forward, process improvements, research administration, eLearning, risk management, and plans related to athletics and community campuses are ongoing. “We are trying to answer the question: How can we do more for the state with less money?” Johnsen explains. “So we did some structural moves and focused on process improvements,” which streamline work for faculty and improve the experience for students, making it more convenient and up-to-date.
Johnsen says that today, people have high-quality interactions online with large corporations such as Amazon or Alaska Airlines that have invested in improving the client/customer experience. “We haven’t invested in those over time, so we are investing in those right now.”
One result of that investment is a new website gateway called My Future Alaska that allows students interested in higher education in Alaska to see the UA system as a “big picture.” For example, previously students interested in political science would need to visit the UAA, UAF, and UAS websites separately to see what programs and courses are offered at each one. My Future Alaska is a “horizontal view of all of our programs across the UA system that makes us much more transparent and communicates to people wherever they are in Alaska all of the programs that are available to them,” Johnsen says.
UA system nursing programs are led out of the University of Alaska Anchorage but are available statewide throughout the system.
Goals for 2025
Johnsen has been UA’s president for just more than three years, having joined the university system in August 2015. He says that when he came onboard—in the midst of a state in a fiscal crisis and budgets for education being slashed—step one was Strategic Pathways: “What do we do now to step up our performance while our budgets are being cut, while people are being laid off, to try to create some positive energy.”
But that was just step one; step two has taken the form of a seven-year plan that extends to 2025 and has five major goals: increase college completion and attainment, prepare Alaska’s workforce for Alaska jobs, contribute to the expansion and diversification of the state’s economy, continue to strive for cost-effectiveness, and grow UA’s world class research.
The number one goal for Johnsen is economic development. “Our state lags in many standard economic criteria: we have the lowest job growth in the country, the highest unemployment, and the lowest value added manufacturing of any state in the country. So what can we do, in terms of programs, to strengthen economic development in Alaska?”
The system’s other goals all relate to building Alaska’s economy. Alaska is already a world leader in Arctic research, and in addition to capitalizing on that strength, UA is looking at what other research areas can benefit Alaska, such as healthcare and energy. “We have developed research initiatives that support challenges that we have in the state and support practical solutions to those challenges.”
Educating and developing Alaska’s workforce clearly support the economy, and according to Johnsen, UA has decided to focus on two vital sectors: healthcare and education. “We’re still going to train engineers and welders, but healthcare occupations and teachers are two key areas for the state, and we’re making progress on both of those,” he says. “We’re working with employers to find out what they need: what are you looking for, how many people do you need, what do they need to know, and what kind of attitudes do you want, because they can’t know everything, but people who are creative and innovative can learn on the job as they go.”
Johnsen is particularly passionate about education, as one would hope, considering his vocation.
He says, “The single most important thing you can do for your state or nation is educate your people.” He explains that Alaska ranks lowest in the nation in terms of students continuing their education after high school, whether that’s attending a four-year university or getting a vocational certificate. “We’re 50th in the country—we really want to step that up. Research across the globe says if you increase educational attainment in your state or in your country, you will improve the health status of your people. You will improve their incomes. Their kids will do better as a result of that, and are less likely to go to jail. Those are just a few—and all good—things.”
As a part of this goal, UA is partnering “upstream” with K-12 educators, such as investing in dual enrollment programs (through which high school students can take college-level courses) and the Middle College School programs, now with locations in Anchorage and Eagle River, that allow students to earn college and high school credits simultaneously.
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Online with UA
Middle and high school students aren’t the only nontraditional students that UA tries to accommodate. “Our traditional student is a non-traditional student,” Johnsen says. “Our average student is twenty-nine years old, so the idea that we can expect all of our students to come to class—to live in a dorm, to attend classes Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:00 to 12:30—is ridiculous. In order to really serve our students, we need to recognize who they are.”
To that end, UA has been pushing to develop its online course offerings in addition to evening and weekend class offerings. But especially in Alaska, online programs are the best bet to make sure students have access to the courses they need to work around work schedules, transportation, or weather issues.
UA’s catalogue of online classes has expanded dramatically over the last three years, Johnsen says, “and we will keep driving that.” UA now has several degree programs that are available entirely online, such as bachelor’s degrees in psychology, justice, and business. He says UA is very close to offering a bachelor of science in biology solely online. Additionally, a master’s degree in business can be earned entirely through online courses, “and there are many, many others,” Johnsen reports. In total, the UA system has 108 eLearning programs.
One concern for many with pursuing an online degree, or even taking an online course, is if the quality of the course will match the standards of an in-person class or program. In November UAF became the fourth university in the nation to earn the Quality Matters Online Learner Support certification. Quality Matters is a nonprofit, quality assurance organization that reviews, offers ideas for improvement, and provides certification of quality for “well-conceived, well-designed, well-presented online courses and programs.”
According to a UAF release about the certification, “The Quality Matters review team was particularly impressed with the tech support available and the high satisfaction ratings it got from online students, the programs in place to help students succeed academically, and the variety of ways UAF accepts student feedback.” Johnsen adds, “Sometimes folks think that the online programs aren’t of quality, and they’re just flat wrong. Yes, face-to-face education is great, but for a lot of people with real lives and jobs and families, we’re just not available to serve them [through a traditional college approach]. So there’s been a lot of focus on quality in those online programs.”
Most students attend college in search of better employment opportunities, whether that’s finding a new career or building on their current one. Considering many of UA’s students are not at the beginning of a career, it becomes even more vital to find the right program to meet their goals.
To that end, in November 2017 UA launched Career Coach, which allows students to browse Alaska job postings, get information on workforce training and educational opportunities, and find data on Alaska labor markets and wages. Johnsen says, “The whole idea of Career Coach is we pulled together data from employers and other sources and make that data available to our students so they can say: Well, if I pursued this academic degree, what’s available to me?”
Alternatively, if students already have a program in mind, such as nursing or petroleum engineering, they can see what jobs are available, how many openings there are, and where those jobs are in Alaska. “The concept is to integrate market data, job availability data, and our academic programs. It’s a cool program and we’re getting a lot of usage out of it.”
UA President Jim Johnsen (right) is passionate about education, saying: “The single most important thing you can do for your state or nation is educate your people.”
No End in Sight
Johnsen already has a vision beyond 2025 for the people and state that UA is striving to serve. “One of the things we’re looking at is 2040, and you’ll say, ‘Really, Jim? 2040?’ But a kid born today in Alaska, if he or she stays on track with their education, if we get it right, that kid will be graduating at UA in 2040… And if we don’t get it right, if we don’t make those investments and don’t create a stronger institution and therefore a stronger economy for Alaska, that kid’s not going to graduate or that kid’s not going to stay here.”
Johnsen is bullish about the state and UA and throughout the last several difficult years has maintained his optimism about how the university can be a tool to help the state become stronger. “I don’t see us as a barrier to economic development, we’re actually an instrument for creating the state’s future,” he says.
In April 2018, the McDowell Group prepared the University of Alaska Household Opinion Survey 2018, which took a look at Alaskans’ perceptions on “quality of life, the economy, outlook for the future, and their level of concern for a number of issues such as crime, energy costs, climate change, quality of education, and employment.” One of the takeaways that Johnsen was pleased with is that people have more confidence in UA than any other state entity they were asked about. In total, 28 percent had “significant confidence” in UA and only 15 percent of respondents reported that they had “little confidence,” compared to the federal government and Alaska Legislature, which tied with 48 percent reporting “little confidence.”
“If it’s true that higher education is critical for a state’s livelihood and competitiveness, then I would need to leave the state if I’m not optimistic,” Johnsen says. “But I love the state, and I love the people of Alaska, and I do everything I can to position the university to lead. There is no great state without a great university, period. That’s something for us to always remember and strive to support.”
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