University of Alaska Anchorage campus.

The University of Alaska is back from its near-death experience in spring 2019 when Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s imported budget director, Donna Arduin, pushed a plan to cut slash funding for the university by more than 40 percent, and all in one year.

Fortunately, Dunleavy backed away from that plan and ultimately got rid of Arduin, although an energetic recall drive that was underway (and still is) may have helped persuade the governor.

But the publicity and uncertainty Arduin caused – and it caught national media attention – created tension and a loss of confidence among the university’s students and parents and faculty. 

Things have gotten better. A compromise budget plan worked out between the governor and then-president Jim Johnson substituted a three-year plan of gradual reductions (the state’s budget problem was real) which allowed the university to survive. Now a real recovery is underway, despite the pain of the COVID-19 pandemic that came last year. 

Although enrollment at the University of Alaska is still showing some signs of the impact of COVID-19, the university is seeing a healthy increase in student applications for the spring, 2021 semester along with an increase in acceptance of students who have applied, university interim president Pat Pitney told the state senate’s education committee last week. 

The data is preliminary, so the acceptance number, which is a part of the students who have applied, tends to be a lagging indicator and could increase. However, the strong upward trend in applications particularly at University of Alaska Anchorage, or UAA, is very encouraging. 

For UAA, as of Jan. 25 applications for admission to degree programs are up 14.8 percent compared with a year ago (which would be before the COVID-19 pandemic); applications at University of Alaska Fairbanks are up 6.9 percent. Applications at University of Alaska Southeast are down 2.4 percent, but university-wide, the applications to degree programs at is up 10.2 percent for spring semester compared with the same time last year.

Admissions, a subset of those who have applied, reflect a similar trend, with spring admissions up 7.9 percent at UAA and 3.8 percent at UAF, but down 3.7 percent at UAS. System-wide, admissions are up 5.3 percent. The difference between applications and admissions may narrow as the spring semester continues. Increasing numbers of applicants can be seen as a sign of confidence in the university by “customers,” meaning students and parents. 

The trend reflects higher confidence in university by its “customers” – students and parents – Pitney said. Applications to degree programs is important because students beginning work on degrees are making multi-year commitments. There are also students in non-degree programs who are taking courses. 

An interesting aspect is that UA enrollment trends have been improving during the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which compares with the sharp dip in enrollments after the governor and budget director Arduin proposed cutting the university’s budget. The shock of those proposals cuts shook Alaskans’ confidence. 

Comparing the drop in enrollments after Arduin’s plan surfaced and the recovery that followed, after she departed, and Dunleavy shifted gears illustrates that stability in funding is more important than the effects of the pandemic.

The university is now in the third and final year of the phased spending reduction deal and Pitney is hoping for a period of stability will allow UA to preserve and even strengthen its core programs. Those include health sciences at UAA; Arctic research and studies at UAF, and maritime-related studies in Southeast. Engineering programs at both UAA and UAF remain strong, too.

UAA’s health sciences expertise greatly benefited the state during the pandemic, when an accelerated graduation of nursing students helped health care providers who were stressed in dealing with patient overloads. The Anchorage campus is also developing as a “hub” of health innovation in a partnership with regional hospitals and care providers,

The governor is now supporting all this, and his proposed Fiscal Year 2022 state budget has no more cuts for the university.

Meanwhile, UAA is working to rebuild its education and teacher training programs, which suffered a big blow when the Anchorage campus education school lost its accreditation in early 2019. UAF and UAS, the two other universities in the state system, retained accreditation for their programs and stepped in quickly to include UAA education students, but substantial number of students were lost in the resulting confusion.

Pitney told legislators that the university is now developing an inclusive program for all three universities under one umbrella, with the marketing for this to new students begin this spring. 

Teacher education within Alaska is critical to school districts who face continuing high turnover, particularly in rural schools, and high costs in recruiting and hiring new teacher from out of state. About 1,000 new teachers a year must be recruited to fill vacancies in Alaska schools and the university has been turning out only a third of that.

Pitney told legislator about one other university innovation that is now generating revenue, the “edX courses.” UA is now one of 160 universities in the edX program offering free online courses, and 5,000 people have viewed UA courses in Arctic science and security, in which the university excels. 

These are free, but so far 160 have opted this year to get a certificate of completion for which fees are paid. Harvard, MIT, University of Texas are among universities in the network. The demand for Arctic courses demonstrates the revenue potential for UA when it builds on areas of strength. 


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