This College Program Wants to Overhaul the Education Culture in Alaska
Nearly 40 percent of students starting at 4-year public institutions took at least one developmental (or college-level readiness) course while enrolled from 2003 to 2009. For the University of Alaska, that number is even higher: an internal study shows 60 percent of students required developmental coursework over the last 10 years.
Engineering professor Herb Schroeder is concerned about that, given students required to enroll in developmental courses have shown to have lower success rates, while families bear the pricey grunt of paying for these non-credit courses.
Colleges have taken different approaches to the issue. Some, such as the California State University system, have done away with non-credit remedial coursework entirely. But the University of Alaska is taking a different approach—at least, that’s what Schroeder is trying to make happen through the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP).
“We want to rebuild the whole education culture, start at the beginning,” he says.
Schroeder founded ANSEP in 1995 after working as an engineer and noticing how his white, male colleagues sometimes clashed with locals when they entered native communities for work projects. He saw a need to educate and employ more natives who could work engineering jobs where they are familiar with the people and culture.
His idea began with a group of students who formed a study group and weekly meetings. Today, there are about 2,000 students from more than 100 Alaskan communities in the program, ranging from sixth graders to PhD candidates.
The purpose, Schroeder says, is to reduce the cost and time it takes students to get to a degree, and particularly for Alaska natives who make up 15 percent of the state’s population but only 6 percent of its science and engineering workers.
“[Remediation] is a fragmented approach, it won’t work to solve this,” says Schroeder. “We are taking a global approach.”
Starting at the middle-school level, ANSEP offers 2-week programs throughout the year where students and their teachers visit the university for hands-on STEM education, like a popular build-your-own-computer program. Students are allowed to keep their computers if they return to school and complete Algebra 1 before high school—an effort to better prepare students for the next stage in their education.
At the high-school level, ANSEP has multiple programs. There’s a dual-credit offering called Acceleration Academy, as well as a Summer Bridge for seniors who take college math courses while also working a paid summer internship in science or engineering.
The can keeps getting kicked back further and further. College puts the blame on high school, but high school puts the blame on middle school.
And then there’s Acceleration High School, a full-time high school where students can simultaneously earn college credits towards a diploma. August 2016 marked the first class of students to enroll in the program, which partners with Matanuska Susitna Borough School District. In 2018, the high school program will expand to offer a space for high school students in Anchorage on the university campus, with goals of one day adding a residential live-in component.
Michael Bourdukofsky, chief operations officer at ANSEP, explains that the middle and high school components were gradually added as the program began to expand its efforts to support students before they get to college.
“The can keeps getting kicked back further and further. College puts the blame on high school, but high school puts the blame on middle school,” says Bourdukofsky of the challenge around needs for developmental coursework.
Making a shift
Bourdukofsky is an ANSEP alumni and participated in the program as an undergrad at the University of Alaska, Anchorage in the early 2000s. He says he got his first job in engineering from the connections he made at weekly Friday meetings where industry professionals often came to speak to students—and recruit for jobs and internships.
The program claims that 75 percent of students who participate with the University Success program—which includes weekly presentations, group study sessions, mandatory internships and co-enrolling students in STEM courses together—enrolled in BS degrees between 2010-2015 either graduated or kept in their major.
Other statistics from a third-party study on the program show striking results for the students with access to ANSEP: 77 percent of middle-school students completed Algebra 1, compared to the national average of 26 percent. Close to 95 percent of the 277 Summer Bridge students continued on to a BS degree program at the university.
The report also shows that of the 27 students participating in the Graduate Success component of ANSEP, a third have attained a graduate degree, and more than half are still studying at the University of Alaska. Bourdukofsky estimates that about half of the students in the undergraduate and graduate programs now have gone through the middle and high school programs, underlining the success in keeping students in the program long-term.
“When you look at your results, you’d be surprised more don’t want to get involved with this at the state-level,” says Schroeder, who is the endowed chair for the program.
I want to make this program unnecessary. There is no reason why what we are doing here, aligning curriculum in K-12 to the university, can’t be done within the larger system.
Besides red tape, there are a few other barriers still standing in the way from a longitudinal program like ANSEP to hit the mainstream.
Schroeder says “every single day” is a battle for funding to keep the $8 million operation as well as its facilities (such as computer labs and study spaces) afloat. He claims the programs rely on the state for about 20 percent of its budget and heavily on private philanthropies and nonprofit partners like the National Science Foundation, the ExxonMobil Foundation and the Alaska Federation of Natives.
It’s also true that many students in the state don’t have access to enter the program either because their school cannot fund to send students. And some middle schools don’t offer Algebra 1, nulling the computer activity incentive. (Bourdukofsky claims some students have returned to their schools to demand the course.)
The most difficult challenge though, Schroeder says, continues to be “overcoming bias” against native students, which he sees students in the program face on campus, and hears from those he talks to about replicating the program on a larger scale.
But if bias were somehow eliminated, says Schroeder, a program like ANSEP wouldn’t be necessary. And he sees that as a good thing. “I want to make this program unnecessary. There is no reason why what we are doing here, aligning curriculum in K-12 to the university, can’t be done within the larger system.”
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