Senator Berta Gardner

August 20, 2014

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Spenard, and UMed

433 W. 4th Ave.
Anchorage, AK 99501
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From the Road...

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

Senator Gardner on the Capitol steps showing her support for public education.
Senator Gardner on the Capitol steps showing her support for public education.

        I am in Minneapolis as an Alaskan delegate to the Education and the Natural Resources & Infrastructure committees of the National Conference of State Legislatures.  It is a mistake to be on two committees because realistically I can only be at the meetings of one.  I am attending the Education meetings and just try to collect the handouts of the other.

        The most interesting meeting yesterday was titled 'The Future of Higher Education'.  The presenter opened by describing the categories of current college/university attendees:

  • 24% Young Academics - students fresh out of high school embarking on a 4 year program;
  • 11% Coming of Age - fresh high school grads without a specific program in mind;
  • 18% Career Starters - students with specific career goals in mind;
  • 21% Career Accelerators - those who seek specific classes for their chosen employment;
  • 18% Industry Switchers - seeking training for a new field;
  • 8% Adult Wanderers.

        At the same time, the average tuition costs, as a percentage of median household income has increased dramatically.  In 2001 average tuition was 23% of median income, in 2007 the figure was 29% and in 2012 up to 42%.  It is not surprising then the average student debt on graduation is $30,000 and rising, while many new graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

        The obvious question is:  Are students getting value for the money spent?  We were told that 40% of the public think so, 76% of University presidents think so but only 31% of faculty think so, adding that academic rigor has fallen over time.  Apparently students and families were not included in this particular study so I don't know how they would answer.  

        I wonder how one can really determine the value of higher education and I think there is no consensus on it. We know that employers say they want to see the following abilities of graduates:

  •  Written and oral communication skills
  • Ability to manage multiple and competing priorities.
  • Ability to collaborate with others and to solve problems.

        Thinking about the categories of students, it is clear that meeting their needs and goals will require a variety of strategies.  For example, the first two categories - Coming of Age and Young Academics might be best served in a traditional residential college which can provide the benefits of learning to be creative, to take risks, to fail.  Students in such an environment have  access to faculty as mentors to help them find a calling, as well as to participation in undergraduate research, and to cross-cultural experiences.

        Other types of students, however, might be better served at schools which focus not only traditional classrooms, but also on such things as competency based credits, apprenticeships and internships, online and hybrid courses.  Clearly, this is the case for our own university system which a high percentage of students who are not full time, 4 year degree seeking.

        One of the new topics of discussion in higher education is that of a "gap year".  This is already common in many countries.  High school graduates take a year away from school to mature and learn more about themselves before investing in higher education.  The gap year can be spent in entry level employment in a field of interest, in public service through something like Americorp or the Peace Corp.  Gap Year would really involve a cultural shift rather than policy or legislation. I find it an interesting idea.

         Watch for more news from the road in the next day or two....

         I’m Berta and I’m still listening,

         If you have any questions, please feel free to contact my office

signed: Berta


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