In Coastal Alaska, 2 Visions for the Future of Higher Education

Alternative Pathways

In Coastal Alaska, 2 Visions for the Future of Higher Education

Will tomorrow’s students flock to the convenience of online learning or crave an intense residential experience?

By Rebecca Koenig     Mar 29, 2024

In Coastal Alaska, 2 Visions for the Future of Higher Education
Outer Coast students on the Sitka Cross Trail. The three mountains are known as the Three Sisters.

For James Singewald, a typical week goes something like this: Learn about the history of boarding schools in an Indigenous Studies class. Apply a fresh coat of paint at Southeast Alaska Independent Living, a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities. Cook breakfast for a classmate celebrating a birthday. Meet with a professor on Zoom to talk about academic plans. Attend student government meetings. Swim in the ocean as snow falls.

It’s the kind of higher ed experience that leaders of a new, nonprofit, two-year, liberal arts, postsecondary program in Sitka, Alaska, hope more young adults like Singewald will get to have soon. This fall, the first official cohort of 20 students will enroll at Outer Coast, an aspiring college whose campus is in the state’s southeast chain of islands, sometimes called the Alaskan Panhandle.

It’s unusual to try to open a new college these days, in an era when it’s more likely for established colleges to shutter. At least 30 colleges closed in 2023, according to an analysis by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Yet Singewald, a 21-year-old who grew up in California, thinks there are plenty of young people looking for the kind of life he’s living right now: studying history, literature and ecology just south of Glacier Bay National Park and west of Tongass National Forest.

“The students are really great. I think everyone kind of comes to a program like this for some similar reason: They’re looking for something different,” Singewald says. “And they’re really excited to learn and take on an intense journey.”

The intensity at Outer Coast also emanates from the friction of the future sliding over the past.

The new program operates out of the former campus of Sheldon Jackson, a religious boarding school and later a college, both now closed, that were founded to educate Alaska Native students as part of “a deeply assimilationist institution,” says Yeidikook’áa Dionne Brady-Howard, who is Tlingit and grew up in Sitka.

A former social studies teacher at the city’s public boarding high school, Brady-Howard now serves as chair of Indigenous Studies at Outer Coast, where students study Alaska Native literature, beading and the Tlingit language. She says she joined the faculty because she was intrigued by the opportunity to be part of an education institution “that is actively working to put back those things that were taken from our people for so many decades.”

“Tlingit language is being spoken in that space. Tlingit culture as well as aspects of other Native cultures are being taught in that space. Tlingit stories and other Native stories are being read and given credence in that space,” she says. “And that is extremely powerful.”

With its focus on forging a close-knit community, inspiring student service, and disrupting the Western canon, this new program sits on an island in several senses. But Outer Coast need not be an outlier in higher education, believes its executive director, Bryden Sweeney-Taylor.

He thinks that the model, which is still seeking full accreditation and therefore can’t yet officially call itself a “college,” could also work in other relatively remote regions in the U.S. that are higher education “deserts” — places where, he explains, “it feels like students need to leave behind their backgrounds, their communities, in order to get ahead.”

Yet Sitka isn’t exactly a higher education desert. The city of about 8,000 people is already home to a college, one whose vision for the future of learning is quite different from Outer Coast’s.

Different Visions

The University of Alaska Southeast has three campuses planted on “the tongue of land that is in between the Pacific Ocean and Canada, separated by hundreds of miles of glaciers,” as Paul Kraft describes it. He’s the director of the Sitka location, which used to be a community college before it was consolidated into the state university system.

For the past three decades, the University of Alaska Southeast at Sitka has prioritized distance education, especially in the sciences. The move to remote instruction — long before that model caught on in higher ed more broadly — came about as the institution searched for a way to stay relevant and accessible to more students given its geographic isolation, Kraft explains.

After all, Sitka is only reachable by plane or by boat, he says — and the ferry doesn’t come that often.

Alaska has a low college graduation rate compared to other states. Only about a third of the state’s high school class of 2022 were enrolled in postsecondary education within a year following graduation, according to the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.

One reason why, according to Kraft, is that in Alaska, people can find occupations that offer a decent living without requiring a college degree.

“You can leave high school and work on the oil field, or work in a mine, or work as a deckhand on a fishing vessel, and make six figures,” he says. “They have available to them vocations or careers where they do very well financially — while having a college degree, there is not a return on that investment.”

So the Sitka branch of the university has leaned into programs that emphasize workforce training. Students who study on campus tend to come for career and tech courses, learning about, for example, welding, or scientific diving, or aquaculture. The majority of students study online — Kraft says 80 percent don’t live in Sitka — mostly in two-year programs. Health care training is popular.

“People who do online do so because it fits their busy life,” Kraft says.

In contrast, Outer Coast offers liberal arts courses in person, conducted in the style of small-group seminars. The curriculum emphasizes themes important locally to Sitka; for example, every student is required to study the Tlingit language.

In the works for nearly a decade, Outer Coast’s model is intended to allow students to earn an associate degree and then transfer to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree. It’s inspired by Deep Springs College, a tiny, two-year, private school in California founded a century ago by banking and power-company magnate L.L. Nunn to emphasize manual labor and student self-governance as well as academics. Sweeney-Taylor, the executive director of Outer Coast, is a graduate of Deep Springs and previously worked there as an instructor.

Outer Coast aims to start each school year with 20 new students, and the tiny cohort size affords intimate learning opportunities that Singewald appreciates — like eating banana bread while discussing books at a professor’s home — and that he thinks he’d be less likely to get at a large university.

“It’s just so accessible and so encouraged, as well as easy, to meet with faculty members to really explore and ask questions that you may have felt shy asking in the middle of class, or that you maybe didn't even think about until class ended,” Singewald says. “It’s more personal than merely, like, you’re coming to consume this knowledge and then leave. We’re looking to have an intellectual relationship in which we can exchange ideas and encourage each other’s thoughts, and I think that’s my favorite part of it.”

Students at Outer Coast also work at community organizations, putting in hours at, for example, a local fish hatchery, animal shelter, cemetery or retirement home. Students are responsible for cooking, cleaning and keeping the program functioning through a self-governance system of committees that make decisions about enrollment, curriculum and faculty. The program asks students to spend about 20 hours a week on service and labor.

“I think ultimately the Outer Coast education feels like it is something that students are contributing to that is larger than themselves,” Sweeney-Taylor says.

To measure whether Outer Coast is accomplishing what it sets out to do, leaders plan to use administrative data and surveys to track student success over time, looking at metrics related to academics, degree completion, career progression and community participation.

Sweeney-Taylor says there are plans to compare the outcomes of students who attend Outer Coast with those who choose not to attend or who are waitlisted.

“We will know that we are accomplishing our goals and fulfilling our mission when Outer Coast students experience greater success and meaning in comparison to their peers in their education, careers, communities and lives overall,” Sweeney-Taylor said via email.

Peculiar Partners

Like higher education nationwide, Alaska colleges are suffering from a “post-COVID hangover,” Kraft says, with more potential students seeming skeptical about whether a college degree is worth the cost.

The two postsecondary options in Sitka represent the extremes as to how higher education could evolve post-pandemic. Will tomorrow’s students flock to the convenience of affordable online learning? Or will they crave, and pay for, a deeply physical, interpersonal, residential experience?

Tuition is relatively affordable at the University of Alaska Southeast, yet the institution still grapples with what Kraft calls the “narrative” that most students who go to college leave with “a crushing debt.” Meanwhile, cost of attendance at Outer Coast will be about $45,000 this fall. (The program says it will meet demonstrated financial need for its students.) Sweeney-Taylor expects that tuition will cover half of the revenue needed to operate Outer Coast, while the other half will come from philanthropy. So far, Outer Coast reports it has raised more than $3 million from individuals and foundations.

Both institutions seek to serve more students from Alaska. Among students from the state’s high school class of 2022 who did pursue higher education, more than half enrolled at colleges outside of the state.

Brady-Howard, the chair of Indigenous Studies at Outer Coast, says it’s typical for many high school seniors to want to experience a new way of life when it’s time to select a college. A campus in the Lower 48 can seem very appealing to them.

Yet the reality of life far away can be disorienting.

“Having taught at a predominantly Native boarding school for 23 years, though I respect their decision to do that, I have seen former students struggle when they go outside of Alaska to large institutions, where they are going to be a minority within a minority,” she says. “That disconnection from home gets to be a lot for quite a few of them.”

While Outer Coast wants to attract students from a variety of backgrounds, Sweeney-Taylor says, the program is “placing particular emphasis on reaching Alaskan students, and especially Alaska Native Indigenous students and rural Alaskans for whom opportunities for access to higher ed are really limited.”

At the University of Alaska Southeast at Sitka, about 28 percent of students are Alaska Native, Kraft says, and “we would like to get that higher,” he adds. “Our enrollment should reflect the community in which we live.”

With their vastly different models, leaders of the two institutions say they are not competing for the same students.

Indeed, as Outer Coast pursues accreditation as an independent institution, the program has built a relationship with the University of Alaska Southeast that will enable Outer Coast to offer its classes for credit through the university for now.

“It’s a good neighborhood,” Kraft says of Sitka’s postsecondary institutions, “and there’s enough room for more than just one.”

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