Changing Strategic Direction
Setting Sails For Success
By Pat Gamble
President, University of Alaska
UA is Alaska’s higher education engine, with three separately accredited universities comprised of 16 campuses stretching from Kotzebue to Ketchikan. Today, there are nearly 35,000 students enrolled in our universities and college campuses statewide. Over the past decade we have witnessed the number of students seeking postsecondary education continue to grow steadily. UA student enrollment has grown 8.8% just over the last five years, with students enrolled in high demand Alaskan career fields accounting for about 40% of that. Enrollment of first-time-ever freshmen over the same period has grown nearly 28%, with most of that group being Alaskan high school graduates. The UA Scholars Program, our top 10% performing students, has increased its enrollment by 12%. These are all unambiguous indicators that UA is winning the fight to recruit, retain and refine our state’s most precious natural resource … well educated citizens. We have been generally pretty good at building baccalaureate-level graduates … teachers, nurses, engineers, to name just a few. But we have much more to do. The competency bar keeps going up by itself. To meet the growing standards, we are going to have to focus on successful partnerships with Alaska’s industries so we can turn out specifically trained and educated employees where and when the Alaska workforce needs them. Associate degrees are rapidly becoming required, more than simply desired, because employers today want critical thinkers as well as technical experts who can manage their logistics and operate their technology.
To those ends, the university is in the midst of a major institutional directional change. We call it the Strategic Direction Initiative (SDI). Beginning about a year and a half ago, UA teams hit the road for several months, out soliciting the people of Alaska to help us chart a new course. We were highly encouraged by their strong response, their passion, and their commitment to support the work that they said we have ahead of us. Our promise to them was that we will seek out and remove frustrating, expensive, bureaucratic, and administrative barriers to student success that might have unintentionally grown up over time within our university system. We intend to employ readily available technology to help open expeditious pathways for our many categories of students to move both physically and virtually throughout the UA system to meet their attainment goals as quickly and affordably as possible without sacrificing learning quality or value. By asking ourselves why we do things the way we do, and answering honestly and objectively, we intend to create a culture of sustained continuous improvement throughout the UA system.
Upon distilling the SDI outreach data down to its essence, we acquired a much higher degree of clarity regarding our purpose and need. Now, we plan to systematically unlock the potential energy that we observed within the businesses and communities all across our state, and use it to help power our own higher education future. Our ability to parry the challenges lying in ambush along the way of progress links directly to our ability to foresee and then nimbly respond to the myriad of economic market changes trending throughout the Alaskan workplace. Our university system’s ability to adapt plays an essential role in this process. For example, after a decade, Alaska is about to reach a pivotal decision on oil and gas development. What is decided on paper will undoubtedly be hailed as a landmark achievement in our state’s economic history. But at the same time Alaska employs an aging imported oil and gas workforce that needs replacing. Alaska has prospects brewing for several diversified industries. Alaska sits on the cusp of realizing significant brand new types of mining and oil/gas expansions. Alaska is center stage for international arctic environmental and geophysical research. Alaska is responding to a growing number of economic development inquiries that are being received as a direct result of our highly advantageous market location in a world of expanding globalization. In short, Alaska is potentially lead time away from confronting a substantial need for filling management and technical jobs that don’t even exist yet. To accommodate the need without resorting to outside labor will require much closer interface with the Alaska Department of Labor, local industry, and local communities. They will help us identify how many, where, and what those future jobs will look like so UA can get down to the business of designing, planning, engineering and resourcing all the customized workforce education and training programs we will need.
We Are Alaska’s University
In Alaska, anyone eligible and ready for college essentially has an open door to enter our universities and campuses. The burden on a new student of making so many difficult decisions that typically come with enrollment can be quite intimidating. We believe our students deserve first class personal service as they each seek out the best placement in order to transition academically (and affordably) from high school into and through the UA system. To accomplish that tall order we have to form a solid, trusting relationship with Alaska’s school districts … aligning curriculum, collecting student academic data from preschool to high school … making sure that teachers, principals, advisors, parents and students alike are all confident that their expectations for continued academic success are addressed and well placed. Rural Alaska presents its own very important imperatives. We believe that the successful university education programs for rural Alaska are the ones that will prepare students for the analytical rigors of college through the use of culturally-relevant social norms and curriculum. This idea is breaking new trail at the college level. We believe that students learning critical thinking in humanities, math, and science can thrive just as well academically by applying quantitative and qualitative reasoning to the lessons of Alaskan history, culture, and the learning ways of a subsistence experience deeply rooted in their Native heritage. After all, math and science in the bush are the very same as that found in urban Washington, D.C. We believe economic and infrastructure disparities in rural Native communities stand the best chance of elimination by returning well educated, well trained sons and daughters … who never lost sight of who they are during the process of becoming academically prepared … back to their villages as leaders and educators.
Clearly, our state lawmakers want the same things we want: a systematic reduction of institutional barriers so that Alaskan students can easily and cost effectively transition into, through, and out of higher education. For example, students and parents alike have come to expect that the basic core courses taken at any one state campus should transfer to any other, regardless of the method of instruction used, such as the increasingly popular eLearning methods. We agree. This saves money, time, and eliminates a major source of student/parent frustration. Reducing the “hassle factor” would undoubtedly encourage increased enrollment, contribute to better retention, and enhance faster graduation. Additionally, our student-centered community focus needs to be reinforced by similarly progressive attitudes throughout UA itself regarding the system’s co-equal responsibility to provide high quality, timely, student personal service, world-class academic and financial advising, and a genuine inviting and pleasant overall student campus experience inside and outside the classroom. Students want choices and flexibility. They want expanded eLearning opportunities and custom course offerings that allow for family schedules commonly required by our “non-traditional” working students. To that end we are looking at more non-traditional classroom hours, supported by universal internet access and broadband upgrades. We are dialoging across the state with Alaska’s business communications leaders. Off the grid students desperately need access to high data rates that can enable the latest software applications, regardless of where they live in Alaska. When it comes to our role in providing for student’s success, a cursory look at the rate of change occurring around the nexus of leading edge communication, teaching and learning clearly demonstrate that we can’t rest on our laurels. The university has an obligation to maintain the best environment we can for student success, upgraded regularly at a rate commensurate with the high tempo development of their commercial personal technology, and with the expected tempo of the business and scientific advances we are teaching them about in the classroom. Anything less is akin to the illusion of Michael Jackson’s famous “moonwalking” … backward progress disguised as forward motion.
Alaska’s communities told us clearly that their future is deeply invested in the entire education continuum, K-16. Every Alaskan school district, business, and community is a potential partner, beneficiary and contributor toward UA’s comprehensive effort to meet state education and workforce development challenges. SDI, our university system institutional shift in strategic direction, is a comprehensive initiative to pursue much improved and measureable student outcomes at every level … to create greater academic and economic value, and stimulate a greater state return. SDI is about UA adopting a philosophy of system-wide continuous improvement as an enduring cultural tenant. That is what a top line university system should be all about. We Are Alaska’s University. We are all about UA graduates who not only succeed in their higher education aspirations, but also succeed in their life’s calling. For we Alaskans will all assuredly depend on them someday.
How is FY 13 Legislative Funding For Advising Being Used?
Student Success is at the very core of the University of Alaska Strategic Direction Initiative (SDI). During last year’s legislative session, the message that advising equals student success resonated with a number of state legislators, so much so, that the legislature dedicated additional funding specifically for advising to UAA, UAF, and UAS. So, how is that funding being spent right now?
SDI interviewed leaders accountable for increasing academic advising at their University. What we found were both commonalities and uniquely different approaches toward achieving the same outcome: Student Success.
There is one common academic advising software tool that’s available at all UA Campuses. It’s called DegreeWorks. All three Universities have seen a notable increase in DegreeWorks activity this fall compared to last spring. More and more students and advisors are using the software, and that’s a direct reflection of the outreach that’s taking place on the campuses. Here are some examples:
- UAF staff and academic advisors just completed a DegreeWorks intensive that included training to customize the software in order to better meet the needs of the students they serve
- UAS has been mining DegreeWorks’ software capabilities and has incorporated some of their functionalities in student service protocols.
- UAA has been targeting faculty academic advising training through DegreeWorks, and is working on a software upgrade that should be up and running by the summer of 2013.
- All three Universities have incorporated DegreeWorks as a vital part of student orientation, degree planning, and academic advising.
We asked Lora Volden, UAA Registrar, “What makes DegreeWorks such an important tool for students?”
Volden - “Right off the bat, DegreeWorks is accessible to students 24/7. They’re able to see (at a moment’s notice) what their degree requirements are. DegreeWorks also provides a ‘What if?’ feature that allows a student to ask questions like, “What if I added a minor?” or “What if I changed my major?” Students can actually see what overall impact those kinds of questions might have before they make any big decisions. This feature really does allow students to plan better.”
SDI: Where does the academic advising fit in to a student’s academic plan?
Volden- “Accessibility to DegreeWorks is key, but it is not designed to replace the role of an advisor; it’s designed to provide information that allows the student to be better informed when he or she meets with an advisor. DegreeWorks also allows students to communicate more effectively with advisors through the “Notes” section in the DegreeWorks planner. Advisors can answer questions or provide students with additional advice that can help them make decisions that won’t impact financial aid or keep them from staying on track. The “Notes” also give incoming students, who already have a lot on their plate, the opportunity to go back and absorb the advice given by the advisor.”
Different Approaches Toward Achieving The Same Outcome
University of Alaska Southeast
Nelson: “Financial aid has been driving our ‘Student Success’ planning process. DegreeWorks’ Planning Tool is a great tool for addressing that need. So now, a part of the financial aid appeals process that we require at UAS is a print out from DegreeWorks of a student’s academic plan for the next two semesters.”
SDI: What other academic advising challenges are you working on at UAS?
Nelson: “What we already see, down the road, is the opportunity to focus much more on course scheduling and course sequencing. When you look at our retention studies, course scheduling and course sequencing are top themes that students tell us we need to get our arms around as soon as possible.
We believe the DegreeWorks Planning Tool will help us begin working on those issues. We’re starting out with the School of Management at UAS. They are going to take the lead by feeding the courses required for an undergraduate degree into a six-year sequence. Then, we can feed that information into DegreeWorks, giving students a comprehensive academic road map to work from. We think this kind of effort will result in improved student retention”
UAF is ramping up the front end of its academic advising model with more boots on the ground. According to Alexandra (Alex) Fitts, Interim Dean for General Studies, additional student advising funding is going toward expanding and intensifying its student support service.
Fitts: “We have hired more academic advisors to work within the model of student support services, which more specifically is intensive advising. This model goes much deeper than what we might expect from traditional academic advising. In order to better serve the student, we need to gain an understanding of their life situation.
SDI: Can you explain how that process works?
Fitts : “We ask questions like: Do you have your financial aid lined up? How many hours per week are you working? What kind of tutoring might you need? What kind of financial literacy workshops might be helpful for you? Do you need to find childcare services? It’s more of an in- depth one- on- one conversation. By meeting longer and more often with students, advisors can then connect our students with those other support networks that they specifically need.”
UAA is expanding its software technology in order to be more proactive about student advising. UAA’s Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs, Bruce Schultz, described how the University is putting additional advising dollars to work for first and second year students.
Schultz: “We committed to two very specific upgrades: Enhance and expand our MAP-Works software, and fund a position that would more effectively integrate MAP-Works in our advisors’ toolboxes. And we’ve done that. We expanded the MAP-Works program to include 100% of our Anchorage campus degree-seeking freshmen and sophomores, and 100% of students who are enrolled in 100 (or lower) coursework on the Anchorage Campus. So we went from having 2,000 UAA students in the MAP-Works program to over 10,500 students.”
SDI:Can you give us an example of how these upgrades will benefit students now?
Schultz: “One important MAP-Works feature we rolled out this year is ‘Faculty Referrals’. Now all faculty who are teaching 100 or lower numbered courses can submit alerts on students for whom they are concerned. For instance, if a student has not shown up for class or if he or she might be thinking about dropping out of school, that alert can be sent electronically to our intervention team. Faculty can now put that information in the MAP-Works profile, which attaches itself to the student’s risk indicator and is automatically made available to a whole cadre of professionals connected with that student. We’re excited about this model, not only because it provides timely academic intervention for the student, but it also provides a certain amount of accountability. Think about all the University processes that are dependent on student attendance. Now, if a student is not showing up for class, the faculty has the ability through the MAP-Works Faculty Referral program to notify UAA so it can respond to other implications like student aid, academic records, and a host of other factors that cost both the student and the University.”
Expanding on a tool like DegreeWorks, that allows UA students to academically navigate through their higher learning journey, is a big step forward. Students studying at UAF Bristol Bay, UAS Ketchikan, or UAA Kachemak Bay, have access to the same academic advising software. And all of the additional commitments of more trained academic advisors, and enhanced academic advising software tools are a part of the immediate initiative to grow ‘Student Success’.
By growing ‘Student Success’, the University of Alaska has a greater opportunity to grow student enrollment. According to the UA office of Budget, a 1% increase in overall student credit hours generates an additional $1.2 million. So, growing ‘Student Success’ helps grow the University of Alaska’s bottom line in a very meaningful way."
A Conversation with Representative Anna Fairclough About Education and the UA Strategic Direction Initiative
September 21, 2012
During the 2012 Alaska Legislative Budget Session, Representative Anna Fairclough was a strong proponent of the University of Alaska's FY13 operating budget . That budget included additional funding for advising throughout the University of Alaska Statewide system. The Universities of Alaska Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Southeast all received additional dollars dedicated specifically to enhancing advising efforts.
Recently, SDI caught up with Representative Fairclough to talk about her reasons for championing UA funding for advising, and find out more about her overall perspective of the current state of education in Alaska as well as the University of Alaska Strategic Direction Initiative.
SDI: You played a pivotal role in acquiring additional funding for UA student advising during the last Legislative Session. I wanted to get a perspective from you about why you believe that advising is an important element in determining student success.
Rep. Fairclough: “I’ll give you a couple of reasons why I believe that advising is important: The first is if a student doesn’t know how to access the system, they end up creating a more costly system through trial and error. I have two students who went to school through the UA system. Just trying to navigate the system is difficult from my perspective. The second is if you don’t understand the process, then it ends up costing the parents, the family, and the student more in the long run in both time and money. Just the frustration level of people walking away when they don’t understand or can’t gain access to what they need is a disadvantage to the University as a whole.”
SDI: You participated in the very first Listening Session at the Chugiak-Eagle River Campus. That meeting set the tone for 79 additional Strategic Direction Initiative (SDI) listening sessions conducted at campuses all over the state. One very common message was shifting to a more student-centered culture: Greater flexibility, mobility, and a greater understanding of students needs. Is that the same kind of message you have been hearing from your constituents?
Rep. Fairclough: “What I hear mostly from my constituents is the challenge related to the transferability of credits. I believe that students need to better understand why the classes they take can create a transferability problem within the University system. For example: a biology class offered at UAA may not require a lab, but the same class at UAF does. That UAA credit (when it transfers down to UAF) isn’t accepted in the same way because UAF requires that experience in the lab. That’s just one example.
That said the ‘student centered’ message is an important one. Students want that educational classroom available to them at their convenience. They are moving away from the more traditional setting, even though they want that academic support. But they may not be inclined to be another seat in the classroom. I have staff earning their degrees through your system, and much of it is not being done in the classroom; it’s through distance education.”
SDI: Just how important is higher education in the state of Alaska?
Rep. Fairclough: “I think our future is dependent on being able to provide for this generation and the next, so they can provide for the previous generations. Whether it’s looking at our economy from a global perspective and how we compete in a world market, or innovating ways to grow and sustain rural communities, its dependent upon accessing higher education. We have to be able to keep up, and I believe that (as Americans) we are falling behind in the global market.
There has to be a significant change in how we organize the delivery of education. The standard K-12 classroom is not producing a student (at least in the Anchorage area) that is prepared to step into the higher learning environment. In the four years I’ve been involved in the University of Alaska budget, the University has come to the state asking for more dollars to put into remedial education and bridging programs. The accountability for that service should be delivered in K-12, where it should be less expensive than taking it later on at the university. ”
SDI: The following is a list of the five strategic direction themes that emerged from our July 23 SDI planning session:
- Student Achievement & Attainment
- Productive Partnerships with Alaska’s Schools
- Productive Partnerships with Public Entities and Private Industries
- Research & Development to Sustain Alaska’s Communities and Economic Growth
- Accountability to the People of Alaska
How would you list these themes in terms of priorities?
Rep. Fairclough: “Off the cuff, I think we need to start establishing higher profile partnerships with the Alaska public and private industries. We need to then provide partnerships with schools and be able to talk about issues with the general public. We need that to happen so we can somehow reflect measurements of how the education system is being accountable to the people of Alaska.
Student Attainment and Achievement is our goal in front of everything, but if we don’t have those partnerships in place, I’m not sure how we can provide for the continuum of K-12 learner into post secondary learning and the workforce. We need to actually put everyone’s skills to work for the development of the state of Alaska.
I think that research and development absolutely needs to be a component of the higher education process, but I think that the university needs to take into account and look into a cost benefit analysis on many of the programs they’re offering, just like K-12 does.
Alaskans want to invest in education. I don’t know of a single Alaskan legislator that doesn’t believe in our people’s ability to succeed if given the tools they need to be successful… whether it’s workforce development in skills or trades or in higher education.
The reason you saw me step up and champion the University of Alaska’s budget was that we worked together for the last four years, and we had tolled the bell loud enough and said “we’re willing to invest, but you need to have an equal share of investment: whether it’s additional money invested, lower tuition, or fundraising. If you go shoulder to shoulder I’m going to fight on your behalf to make sure the state stays a partner in providing quality higher education for Alaskans.”
SDI: Is there anything else that you would like to comment on?
Rep. Fairclough: “K-12’s budget has grown from $1 billion annually to $1.5 billion today. And they continually advocate for increases in student allocation, which I understand and would like to support, but we can’t sustain that trajectory of budget growth. There are other slices of the budget pie that are very important. The University of Alaska needs a piece of that pie. So do Public Safety, and Behavioral Health (or social services). There are also many important services that state government partners with local governments on that affect the budget too.
There has to be a balance that Alaska strikes between how much money we have available now and for our future. I have worked for four years to build a repository of how Alaskans have, over a generation, tried to take on the fiscal issue of how we sustain ourselves if resource development weren’t it’s backbone. Right now, 85-90% of the budget that the legislature can invest in Alaska comes from resource development.
All systems are getting very broad in what they offer, and I believe at some point in Alaska’s history we will have to prioritize what’s available. So, as industry is demanding different skills from their workforce, my question is “Has the University of Alaska begun examining those programs that are not being accessed by students, or have we continued to support those programs without evaluating the return on investment for the University?” I don’t know the answer to that question. But where we have large wait lists, why aren’t we investing resources for university professors to whittle down those wait lists.”
SDI: So, are you talking about reallocation?
Rep. Fairclough: “Not necessarily a reallocation: but a cost analysis. So just like I think Alaskans will have to face (at some point in our future) having to prioritize where they believe their government should invest money, I also believe that the University of Alaska has the capacity to be ahead of the curve and in a position to pull Alaska out of any future crisis that might be looming on the horizon.”
The University of Alaska State Relations office has a website dedicated to Alaska state government and legislative issues. Click here to find out more.