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University of Alaska may get more selective about who it admits

Pat Forgey
The University of Alaska Anchorage campus UAA photo

Calling it "unethical" to accept tuition money from students who have little chance of graduating, the University of Alaska is looking at tougher admission standards. Some professors are resisting, however, fearing a change means less access to education for students who face academic challenges. 

Instead, administrators say, those students may be better served focusing on different goals, such as community college courses or additional preparation for a four-year program.

"Some students are well prepared to enter community college but are not quite so well prepared to enter baccalaureate programs," said Dana Thomas, vice president of academic affairs at the University of Alaska. He said university data shows that students needing the most remedial work are unlikely to ever obtain a four-year degree.

"We are currently admitting students to baccalaureate programs where the students (are) in the lowest level of development in English and lowest level of development in math," he said. "Our own data shows such students never complete a baccalaureate degree," Thomas said.

Standards already in place at UAF

The proposal to toughen admission standards to four-year programs is now under review by faculty senates at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of Alaska Southeast and the flagship University of Alaska Fairbanks, where such standards are already in place. In Fairbanks, students seeking admission to a bachelor's degree program must show through various combinations test scores and high school course work that they are prepared for college.

However, Thomas is finding some faculty are reluctant to take an action that might exclude students. "There is some concern that might impede our open-enrollment mission," said Robert Boeckmann, faculty senate president at the University of Alaska Anchorage and an associate professor of psychology.

The university has not rolled the proposal out before the public yet, but has offered assurances that enrollment in community college-type classes and remedial classes would remain available. Such issues are complicated in Alaska, with its unique combination of community college and university programs in the same institutions.

Student loan default rate in Alaska 9.5 percent

The Alaska Commission on Post-Secondary Education says the average Alaska student loan is $14,600, though many borrowers take on other loans as well, said Executive Director Diane Barrans. The default rate for Alaska Student Loan recipients attending school outside Alaska is 4.9 percent, while for those attending school in Alaska it is 9.5 percent, she said.

Drawing conclusions from those numbers is difficult, she cautioned, because many Alaskans heading outside attend more-selective institutions that don't have the University of Alaska's open enrollment policy.

National research into student loan defaults shows that many come from students who only attended a short period of time and may not have been adequately prepared, she said.

University faculty are not rejecting the proposal outright, Boeckmann said, and see some merit to it.

However, concerned faculty members believe it may be better to be "a bit more honest with students challenged by the requirements of a bachelor's degree," he said. Those students sometimes need extra support.

Questions arose about whether the intent of new tougher admissions standards was to increase retention and graduation numbers, he said. Cynics wonder if "this is about cooking the numbers," Boeckmann added.

The change might increase retention and graduation rates, Thomas said, but the goal is to have fewer students fail, not to boost the graduation numbers, he said. "We're the only people who look at those numbers," he said.

Last academic year, the University of Alaska had more than 48,000 students. About a third of them, or 16,000 students, sought bachelor's degrees. The remainder were enrolled in associate, graduate, certificate or non-degree programs.

Make help available to students

The key to making the new minimum standard work, said University of Alaska Southeast Provost Richard Caulfield, is continuing to strengthen advising programs and make sure help is available for students who need it. "The goal here is fundamentally student success, so we don't throw students into the deep end of the pool, but help them to where they can make it on their own," he said.

Thomas said he hopes to have responses from the three schools' faculty senates by spring.

The goal, he said, is to get students into programs where they can prosper, whether that's seeking a bachelor's degree or in a diesel mechanic program. Some students begin in a certificate program and decide to go on and get an associate's degree, or begin the two-year program and use that work to go on to a bachelor's degree, he said.

"We don't want to step on anybody's dreams with this,” Thomas said.  “That's not the intent.”

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com