University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton has long maintained that a strong education system is the only path to economic success in the state.
This week, he brought that message to the Kenai Peninsula, speaking to community groups around the central peninsula, as well as at the Kenai Peninsula College graduation ceremony.
"I hope you realize there's a very special quality to your community in the Kenai-Soldotna area. The way you support education and, from my world view, education at KPC really is an example for the rest of Alaska to follow," Hamilton told the Kenai Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.
His message wasn't all praise, though. Hamilton said the state has done a poor job of promoting its university system to young people, and the Kenai Peninsula is no exception.
"Alaska is dead last in the U.S. in retention of students, and there is no good reason for it," he said. "Losing our best and brightest to the Lower 48 is self-destructive. We spend $650 million on K-12 education, then export them. It's not a good plan."
Hamilton said too many jobs in the state are filled by travelers, people brought in from the Lower 48 to fill key positions. Importing workers costs an exorbitant amount of money and ultimately sends those dollars out of the state, he said.
For example, he said it costs about $11,400 per month to hire a traveler to fill a radiation technician job, versus about $4,200 to fill the position with a resident worker.
That's a remarkable difference that is apparent across the board, especially in fields with worker shortages, such as the health industry, he said.
The problem is that there simply aren't enough residents who are trained in the needed fields.
"We owe a great deal to travelers. They are highly skilled professionals. I'm simply suggesting that if we had people who were not only superb professionals but also members of the community, that much the better," he said. "If Alaska workers filled half of the teaching jobs, half of the allied health jobs, half of the nursing jobs, it would affect the economy more dramatically than the opening of (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) or the opening of a new pipeline."
The university is doing its part to make that dream a reality, Hamilton said. For one thing, it maintains a world-class faculty, he said. The school receives about $150 million in nationally competitive grants, compared to the $60 million it received five years ago. The professors at the university also average about 40 percent more competitive research money than their counterparts nationwide, he said.
Programs offered by the university provide students with unmatched educational opportunities as well, he said.
The University of Alaska Southeast is home to one of the world's leading experts on humpback whales, and biology and oceanography programs in the university system are unrivaled, Hamilton told students at Skyview High School on Wednesday.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks has one of the bets math-computer modeling programs in the world. It has won the title in competitive testing facing schools such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT three times in the last 13 years and placed in the top five more times than any other university.
The University of Alaska Anchorage debate team ranked first in the nation this year. That campus also turns out nurses who consistently rank in the top 5 percent in the country on licensing exams. And, starting this month, the campus will host Dr. Vernon Smith, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, for a teaching stint.
All this comes at an affordable price to Alaska students, Hamilton added. The university offers $11,000 scholarships to all students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, and 1,100 students currently are taking advantage of the opportunity.
The current students are becoming "credible emissaries," promoting the university to other prospective students. In the past two years, the university has seen a 10 percent increase in enrollment, none of which can be attributed to demographics in the state, he said. The number of area students who have transferred back to the university from out-of-state colleges has doubled, and retention is up 35 percent, he added.
But the majority of high school students still don't seem aware of the opportunities, and the state isn't increasing its funding for the university system to acknowledge its growing size or its prestige.
"The university isn't a business," Hamilton said. "More students don't mean more money. The cost of providing an education is more than tuition."
The university is working to diversify its income, but state support is important too, he said.
"Things need to change. Thirty thousand kids from 18 to 30 have left the state. People say they'll stay for the permanent fund. They don't stay for 1,200 bucks. They don't stay for a handout. They'll stay for the promise of opportunity," he said
"The university has set its sights on 2009. It's a good date. It's the 50th anniversary of the state. It could be the golden anniversary, depending on how much we fund education.
"We need to think about what we're willing to give up. You can tax me, take my permanent fund, sales tax me, sin tax me, so long as we build a state that holds the same kind of promise it did in 1988.
"Nothing is too good for the state of Alaska."
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