Alaska ranks last in the nation for college-bound students filling out the free application to qualify for federal student aid.

“The availability of federal financial aid is Alaska’s biggest untapped financial resource for higher education. Unfortunately, Alaska’s completion rate is the lowest in the nation, which means thousands of students or potential students are missing out on scholarships or financial aid support,” University of Alaska Pat Pitney said Thursday.

In her first State of the University speech as UA’s 17th president, Pitney emphasized the role of higher education in growing the state workforce and economy. Fairbanks Reps. Bart LeBon and Steve Thompson attended the speech.

“Our passion and duty is creating services contributing to Alaska’s economy. Education pays in Alaska,” Pitney said, noting that students with a college degree earn $20,000 more a year than workers without a degree.

Pitney discussed some of the practical barriers for students that contribute to low college attendance, including how to pay for higher education and training.

Pitney noted that Alaska has the lowest ranking among states for students filling out the FAFSA form, the first step to receive federal student aid in the form of loans and grants.

“If Alaskans filled out the FAFSA form at the average national rate, our students would have $8 million more to pay for their higher education,” Pitney said.

She also noted that “less than half of our students graduate with debt. The debt of our students is lower than at other states.”

But the focus of Pitney’s address, presented at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, was on the value of a UA education through programs that support Alaska industries.

After several years of financial and program cutbacks, UA has stabilized and is positioned well to prepare students for jobs in Alaska, Pitney said.

“We’re re-creating ourselves with a smaller, more focused footprint — having prioritized and maintained the solid foundation of quality academic programs aligned with the highest demand jobs in our state,” Pitney said.

Programs in teaching and nursing, for example, are addressing high-demand areas in Alaska’s workforce.

She pointed to successes of degree as well as certificate programs at UA’s community and technical colleges that often send students directly into jobs.

At University of Alaska Fairbanks, for example, students can be trained as power plant mechanics in a one-year, FAA-certified program. The program is only one of seven FAA-approved courses in the nation.

Pitney noted that the University of Alaska has three universities — in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Southeast — and a network of community and technical colleges.

“We’re a system of higher public education. We’re not a single mission specific university. We’re proud of that,” Pitney said. “Alaska’s higher education is affordable through competitive tuition rates and using the full scope of financial aid.”

Pitney named other academic programs designed with Alaska industries in mind.

UA is providing the education students need for careers as investment managers and financial analysts, she said.

“We make more money on our money than any other state on a per capita basis,” Pitney said about the wealth of investment funds in Alaska. She noted the $80 billion Alaska Permanent Fund, Alaska Native corporation and community foundations, as well as the UA grant and trust fund.

“Having resources in the state to manage this and our corporations is critical,” she said.

She identified UA programs in industries that are re-defining Alaska’s economy, including mining the rare earth minerals for smart technologies; developing commercial drones for cargo transport; and green energy.

Pitney said her message is that “a degree and job training credentials are more important now than ever.”

“Everyone is looking for depth and breadth of graduates,” Pitney said. “We’re looking to grow our workforce.”

Contact Linda F. Hersey at 907-459-7575 or at lhersey@newsminer.com.

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