UA Perspectives: Lael Oldmixon, Saichi Oba, Lisa Villano

National 529 Day Encourages Families to Reflect on Saving for College

UA Perspective by Lael Oldmixon

Today is May 29,  2013. But, to those of us in the college savings industry, it’s National 529 College Savings Day! The UA College Savings Plan celebrates alongside 529 college savings plans across the country and the College Savings Plans Network to encourage families to pause and reflect about the importance of saving for college and long term financial planning.

Student loan debt is a hot topic right now. With the cost of college rising and student loan interest rates increasing, families are, understandably, scared about how they’re going to afford college. As a college student I used loans to cover what I didn’t receive through grants and scholarships. While I believe some debt is good and that student loans fall into this category when taken in manageable amounts, it took me 12 years to pay back my student loans. I truly believe that my education was worth every penny; however, I calculated that the interest on my student loans cost me $10,000! That’s $10,000 that I would have rather had to use as startup money to help me get established as a young professional.

I now have children of my own. My goal for my children, if they “decide” to go to college (let’s face it, like many of your children, they don’t have a choice), is to have the means to go, the ability to select the major and career path of their choice, and to incur as little debt as possible. My husband and I would also like for our children to have the opportunity for experiences above and beyond what’s covered by the Employee Tuition Waiver, experiences like living on campus, studying abroad and taking internships. So three years ago when my first child was born, we opened a UA College Savings Plan with their Permanent Fund Dividend by checking “Yes” on question 6 of the application form. This year, anyone who elects to automatically contribute half of their PFD to the plan is entered into a drawing to win a $25,000 scholarship account or one of four, $2,500 scholarship accounts.

We considered a number of options to save for college, but chose the UA College Savings Plan for several reasons. The UA College Savings Plan is one of the top performing plans in the country for the past 10 years*. Savings also have the potential to go further in a 529 plan than other investment accounts because distribution earnings are tax deferred and are tax free if the account is used for qualified higher education expenses at an eligible school**. The UA College Savings Plan is managed by T. Rowe Price, a recognized industry leader, and offers a variety of easy and affordable investment options. Savings in an account can be used in conjunction with scholarships, tuition waivers, and other financial aid. There are no income or age limitations and the funds may be used at accredited colleges and vocational schools throughout the country.

Opening an account is easy through the PFD option, but for UA employees contributing to a plan is even easier with Payroll Deduction using the code 965. Just complete the Employee Selected Distribution Form available online or at each campus Human Resources Office. Each month I set aside a little money from my paycheck without noticing it’s not there. Truthfully, I didn’t know payroll deduction was an option until I started working as the director of the UA College Savings Plan. It appears that few others do either, as there are only 13 individuals taking advantage of this option in the entire UA system. I feel like it needs to be shouted from the rooftops. This is a great and easy option! As an added bonus, employees who sign up for payroll deduction receive a free UA College Savings Plan tote bag! My goal on this 529 Day is to spread the word among UA employees and increase the number of individuals taking advantage of payroll contributions to 130 by the end of June. But, if payroll deduction isn’t right for you, it’s also easy to set up automatic contributions from your bank account or to contribute by check. The UA College Savings Plan is flexible that way.

Another great way to contribute to the plan is to include friends and family. Our kids have a great aunt who sends $5 cash for nearly every holiday and birthday. I was inspired last year when I received my UA College Savings Plan monthly statement in the mail, along with contribution forms, at the same time a card with $5 from Great Aunt Mary arrived for one of my children’s birthdays. I realized I could be using the UA College Savings Plan Gift Contribution Slips to encourage my friends and family to give a gift that will last a lifetime. Because, let’s face it, the last thing my kids need is another toy with tiny parts for me to clean up! So, I decided to mail a contribution slip to each of our money-giving relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.) to encourage them to send money to the college savings plan for birthdays, graduations, Christmas – you name the holiday. The idea worked great. The grandparents are particularly diligent about contributing to the children’s plans, and the whole family can help save for college.

This 529 Day, I hope you will take a moment to explore the UA College Savings Plan, talk about financial planning with your kids, and join our Facebook community ( www.facebook.com/ak529 ). As always, our team is here to answer any questions about the program or you can find out more by visiting www.uacollegesavings.com or contacting us at 474-5671.

*SavingforCollege.com, 2013. The plan was ranked 9th, 3rd, 6th, and 2nd among 55 direct sold plans for the 1-, 3-, 5-, and 10-year periods ended 3/31/13, respectively. Plans are ranked based on the average percentile rankings in seven asset allocation categories to produce a combined, or "composite" ranking.

** Earnings on a distribution not used for qualified expenses may be subject to income taxes and a 10% federal penalty. State tax laws and treatment may vary. Please check with your state or a tax advisor regarding the specific tax rules for your state. 

If you are not an Alaska resident, you should compare this plan with any 529 college savings plan offered by your home state or your beneficiary’s home state and consider, before investing, any state tax or other benefits that are only available for investments in the home state’s plan. You can also visit our website or call 1-866-277-1005 to request a Plan Disclosure Document, which includes investment objectives, risks, fees, charges and expenses, and other information. You should read the Plan Disclosure Document carefully before investing.

Building Communities that Lift Students to Success

UA Perspective by Saichi Oba

In late April, Region 8 of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) held their annual conference in Anchorage. The title of this piece was this year’s conference theme: Building Communities that Lift Students to Success. In attendance were university advisors, administrators and faculty from throughout the region, which includes Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Yukon Territory.  

Early on NACADA was concerned that not enough participants would make the trek north to join colleagues at a conference in Anchorage. They should have listened to the Alaskans on the planning committee – many of them academic advisors at a UA campus – who knew that when it comes to helping students, succeed – Alaskans will come together.

Of the 275 registered participants roughly 100 were from the University of Alaska or other educational entities from the state – at least one Native Corporation sent staff and the Alaska Postsecondary Commission was also well represented. These people took part of a weekend and workweek to engage with colleagues on best practices and share the challenges and successes of advising college students.

Listening to presentations by UA colleagues and those from outside I was reminded of one of my mentors, Dr. Richard Stenard, former Dean of Students at UAF and Vice President for Student Affairs at Eastern Oregon University, who once shared this with me: “students are not an interruption of your work – they are the purpose of it.” I later found out this was actually only one part of a longer message that the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators had developed in the early 1980’s as a way to bring focus to the profession of student services. This focus on students is one of the fundamental messages of the university’s Strategic Direction Initiative and is perhaps one of the guiding principles of advisors throughout the UA System.

A number of conference attendees took the time to comment to me following President Gamble’s keynote presentation – especially after he shared how fortunate UA was to be supported by the state, pointing out that “48 percent of UA’s budget is provided by the state.” The state’s commitment helps UA keep tuition affordable and higher education accessible to more Alaskans. There are 10 states in the west with tuition higher than Alaska and only four that are lower. In response a colleague from Oregon quipped, “state support in Oregon is down to single digits…” another shared “in Washington we have raised tuition by 16 percent in each of the last two years…” Such comparisons are reminders that UA is on the right track. UA raised tuition two percent this year. An even greater reminder: celebrating a record number of students graduating at commencement ceremonies that took place this month at UA’s 16 campuses, urban and rural.

The NACADA conference offered colleagues from around the state and region the opportunity to validate their work, get feedback for continuous improvement and to share their passion for academic advising that is so important to helping students succeed with their educational and life goals. In a recent survey of UA graduates, 85 percent recognized the support from UA staff, including academic advisors, as somewhat or very important to degreesuccess. Academic advising has been a priority in UA’s budget request to the legislature because of its demonstrated impact on student retention and success. UA’s results correlate with national data on the impact of academic advising.  

Thanks to the advisors and staff from around the university and state that took the time to help on the planning committee, those that presented and to those that were able to attend. While there is still work ahead of us, the conference was a good reminder of how far we have come as an institution. 

The University of Alaska is fortunate to have dedicated faculty and staff, strong leadership, and students committed to learning and scholarship. It is also so important that the university is supported by the state legislature – at a time when most states have chosen other priorities.

Saichi T. Oba Is the associate vice president for Student and Enrollment Services at the University of Alaska. A graduate of UAF, he has worked at UA – at the campus and system level for 21 years.

Making Distance Education Work at the University of Alaska

UA Perspective by Student Lisa Villano

It was during a seven-year-long “semester” hiatus from my undergraduate degree, while living in Tacoma, Wash. working with people with developmental disabilities, that I was inspired along a new educational path. In a moment of genius I realized I loved working with kids and with people with disabilities: why not combine them and become a special education teacher?

I returned to Fairbanks and finished my bachelor’s in psychology, but the ambition of becoming a special education teacher was now firmly in my mind. I worked with the UAF Career Services office to find a program that would be a good fit for me. I knew I would need to obtain a teaching certificate and I needed the program to be high quality and reputable. I needed it to have a predictable structure but allow for some flexibility too, as I was going to have to earn an income while completing the program. 

We looked at some interesting on-campus programs at schools in Washington, Oregon, and Nebraska, but none of them seemed to be quite what I was looking for. Then we looked at the University of Alaska Anchorage: bingo.

The Special Education program at UAA is an online program for Alaskans who would like to become special education teachers but have yet to receive their teaching certificates. The program allows students to receive their certificates and Special Education endorsement all in one shot—from anywhere in Alaska.

But there was a catch: the program is completely online.

I’ve had two bad experiences with distance delivery courses in the past. I took a library science course through the mail and an Abnormal Psychology course online. In each case I was given all the work and class materials upfront, was given a year to complete them, and that was it: no structure, no deadlines. In both cases, I was initially excited but that excitement dissipated about halfway through the first lessons. The only reason I completed the library science course was because my sister drug me to the library (a place I had come to know as a dungeon of doom) and walked me through each of the remaining lessons. The Abnormal Psych course? Let’s just say I wasn’t living near my sister for that one.

Given this history, I wasn’t sure I could succeed in a program that was all online. New technologies have made distance education more effective and user-friendly than it was just seven years ago when I took that Abnormal Psych class. UAA uses a program called Elluminate Live, known as eLive. Every week students log in at a set class time to hear the professor lecture, interact with each other and even do group work. There’s material to get through each day and specific due dates for assignments. It’s just like a classroom, except it’s entirely possible that classmates are attending from different parts of Alaska.

There are still drawbacks. Being 350 miles away from my professors means I can’t just drop by their offices if I have a question. It’s hard to meet cohorts, being so far flung. And you never know how eLive is going to work any given day. Technology isn’t perfect.

With this structure and support, combined with sheer desire, I march on. It’s one thing to be given a binder, some envelopes, and a semester and end up not doing your work, but with class times, due dates and a schedule to keep up, there is less likelihood of falling off course. It’s now not just me that’s affected if I don’t do my work: I have classmates whose grades could be affected too. I am going to receive my Initial Graduate Certificate in Special Education online — and this time I won’t need my little sister.

Lisa Villano lives in Fairbanks and received her BA in Psychology from UAF in 2010. She has just completed her second year in the Initial Graduate Certificate in Special Education program through UAA and will graduate in May 2014.

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