Two recent news items bolster the case that Alaska students may be best served by getting their college education at home whenever possible.
The Associated Press reported last week that college students are graduating with an average student-loan debt of $19,400. On top of that is an average student credit card debt of $2,748.
That means those "twentysomethings" are headed out into the world to seek their fame and fortune saddled with approximately $22,000 in debt. Accumulating debt may make life easier in the short run, but for the long haul it limits one's opportunities. It's tough to take time to see the world or experiment with jobs that may pay less but are more rewarding in other ways with that kind of crushing debt hanging over students' heads. By necessity, money becomes the driving factor, and work has the potential to be, well, just work.
The good news comes in another recent report, this one by the Lumina Foundation for Education. In its study, which measured "accessibility" of colleges and universities to typical residents, the foundation ranked Alaska as one of five states where low-income students can get an affordable college education. "Accessibility" in the study had two components: admissibility, whether the college admits typical college-bound students; and affordability, whether those students can afford to attend.
The cost of college is far more than tuition. Alaska students who seek their college education elsewhere don't always figure the higher nonresident tuition fees, transportation costs for flying to and from Alaska a couple of times a year, higher phone bills to stay in touch with family and friends in Alaska, and lifestyle costs for which there is no price tag. Students who grew up with the freedom to walk on the beach or in the woods not fearing for their safety are likely to find a different world out there, a world where it isn't so easy to find a green or safe place to walk.
Some students leave Alaska to receive their college education, because what they want to study isn't offered here. Others have that generations-old longing to see the world and get away from home. There's nothing wrong with that, but those students should be encouraged to satisfy their wanderlust without incurring mountains of debt -- and, then, return to their roots in Alaska. Plus, Alaska is so large that the main branch campuses of the University of Alaska -- in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau -- offer diversity. Students can get a change of scenery without leaving their home state.
Even closer to home, the Kenai Peninsula is fortunate to have Kenai Peninsula College in the central peninsula and the Kachemak Bay branch of KPC in Homer. Those college campuses represent a terrific opportunity for students, the community and the state.
Only about one-third of Alaska's recent high school
graduates enroll in college. Yet, as the Lumina report noted: "Today, more than ever, postsecondary education is critical to our nation's strength, and Americans' need for ongoing learning is growing steadily."
Those Alaskans who choose not to pursue a college education may be shortchanging themselves by not checking out the opportunities at KPC. It's small and user-friendly. It has both vocational and academic offerings, giving students a chance to explore their options. It has a reputation for helping students who want to pursue their education to find -- and fund -- a way to do it.
This semester, 1,372 full- and part-time students are enrolled at the two peninsula campuses. That's a 7.36 percent increase over last spring's semester. While the average age of a KPC student is 35, the fastest-growing segment of the college's population is the traditional college-age student between the age of 18 and 22.
KPC's potential could be enhanced with the addition of dormitories. An on-campus place to live could help KPC reach out to Alaska's rural students, many of whom may find UA's bigger campuses too impersonal and intimidating. In fact, a group met for the first time this week to explore that possibility. With budgets such as they are, funding for dormitories isn't likely to come from the university or the state. But it could come from grants and partnerships with business groups and others.
The idea deserves support from the peninsula's business community, because training and keeping Alaska students in Alaska is good for business. And if Alaska students can graduate with college degrees in hand with a minimal amount of debt, then their futures will be full of more opportunities.
When it comes to higher education, Alaskans might be overlooking the proverbial acres of diamonds in their own back yard.
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