People who associate universities with academics sitting in ivory towers more than a notch or two away from reality might be in for a pleasant surprise if they studied the University of Alaska, including its Kenai Peninsula College campuses in Soldotna and Homer.
Last week's conference, "Putting Alaska's Resources to Work," hosted by Kenai Peninsula College, is a good example. The purpose of the conference was to bring industry representatives and educators together to determine what kind of training will be required for the thousands of workers who will be needed if several proposed oil, gas and mining projects become reality.
That's a practical side of the university system that often gets overlooked in discussions about the university. Far from striving to be the "Harvard of the North," UA is looking to make a positive difference in the lives of Alaskans whether they're enrolled as students or not.
University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton, who was on the Kenai Peninsula last week for the conference, took some time to discuss the importance of the university to the state and the role the university plays in the state's economic development with representatives from the Clarion. His observations deserve a wider audience. Among them:
n Systemwide, the University of Alaska boasts an enrollment of 33,000. Add the number of Alaskans who enroll for such things as one-day seminars and approximately 50,000 people's lives are enriched by UA offerings. That number doesn't include the number of Alaskans whose lives are made easier by the information the university's Cooperative Extension Service provides. That information includes everything from how to can salmon to how to rid your garden of unwanted pests to how to butcher your first moose.
n The University of Alaska is making laudable strides in plugging the state's brain drain. Last fall, for example, more than half of Alaska's college-bound students decided to start their college career at UA. It was the first time in the history of the state or the territory that the majority of college-bound high school graduates chose UA schools over Outside colleges. Gary Turner, director of KPC, notes what that means at the Kenai River campus: In 1998, there were 500 students between the ages of 17 and 24 enrolled at KPC; this semester, there are 805.
n The UA Scholars program is growing, and 86 percent of the scholars who have graduated from UA are employed within the state. Every Alaska high school graduate who ranks in the top 10 percent of his or her class can be a UA Scholar and receive free tuition to any UA campus. In 1999, the university enrolled 171 UA Scholars; in 2004, the number had grown to 1,551. The really great news about that statistic: Approximately 80 percent of those who attend college in Alaska will stay to work, raise their families and contribute to the state's well-being. The flip side of that: Less than half of those who leave Alaska for their college degrees will ever return.
n Not only does the university play a significant role in training Alaskans for the jobs that are available within the state, but it also has a considerable impact on the state's economy. A 2003 McDowell Group study, for example, found that UA directly employed 7,000 Alaskans in 2002 with a total payroll of $195 million. An additional 10,000 jobs in Alaska are directly or indirectly linked to university spending.
n University research is becoming one of Alaska's largest industries. UA reseach totaled $133 million during fiscal year 2003, up from $77 million five years earlier. For every $1 invested by the state in university research, UA leverages $7 from federal and private sources.
Hamilton uses these statistics and others to make a convincing case that the Legislature and administration need to be cognizant of UA's contribution not only to the education of Alaskans, but also to its significant role to the state's economy when deciding university funding.
Every dollar spent on the university is an investment in the future and strengthens the foundation on which the state can build a healthy economy. The numbers show the university is making the most of the dollars and the students with which it is entrusted.
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