Coalition Forms To Investigate Alaska’s Weak Higher Education Numbers

In most years since 1997, Alaska has finished at the bottom of the percentage of high school graduates attending college. This has been partly because without a college degree, Alaskans can still make a good living from construction, oil, mining, tourism and fisheries. Or are many young Alaskans not ready for college when they get out of high school? This has led to researchers to look closely at what is the root of Alaska’s low rate.

By analyzing the different paths Alaska students take for the first six years after high school, a new research effort aims to replace assumptions with facts. Researchers are crunching data from 40,000 Alaskans who left high school from 2004 to 2008 to identify what they did after graduation. Alaska departments of labor, education and early childhood development, and corrections provided data to a federally funded regional education lab in Portland, Oregon to extract the story behind the numbers for a report due in May, 2014.

According to Kathleen McCoy of Anchorage Daily News, while the director of an education policy research center at University of Alaska – Anchorage, Diane Hirshberg, said that the key audience is people who make decisions about education in the state. Keenly focused on increasing the use of research-based evidence to inform decisions about education, Hirshberg described the effort as the first statewide conversation about what it means for Alaska students to be “college, career and community ready”.

About 10 states already had developed their own definitions as of May 2013 and policies to support those definitions are now being created and implemented — and Alaska is heading in the same direction to include developing the accountability metrics to show progress or failure. Districts and schools are already working toward the goal, but a comprehensive effort is necessary.

“But none of that is statewide. So, if you’re in Tuntutuliak, are you even getting the same message?” she asked.

The report will also take into account Alaska’s native and rural populations.

“We’ve paid attention to the fact that we are sitting in indigenous lands, and Alaska Native views on this are as important as those of white educators,” she said. “Many of them say it’s not enough just to have kids ready to go on to college. Are they also a good member of their community? Being a good subsistence hunter is part of how you are a good member of your community. That’s a piece of this conversation.”

Hirshberg believes that vocational and higher education don’t have to be separate, and that for a young man learning how to be a whaling captain and also planning to study engineering at the university, there should be no conflict.

“We recognize that our students have multiple lives,” she said, “and they have to be competent in their community, whatever that community is.”