The beginning of the fall 2020 semester at UAA was a pretty calm one. Unlike many college campuses around the country, UAA was prepared to help our students and faculty succeed at what we are calling “College during COVID.” Chancellor Cathy Sandeen made a bold decision in May that most courses at UAA would be delivered remotely in the fall — a decision that allowed our faculty and staff the time they needed to prepare.
The decision also allowed our students to know what to expect and make thoughtful decisions about what was best for them. Rather than wishful thinking that we would return to “normal,” UAA embraced college during COVID, projecting strength, ingenuity and resilience as the path to success for our community.
That’s not to say that the last five months at UAA have been quiet, calm, or easy ones. Anything but. I have been a faculty member at UAA for nearly 30 years and an administrator for the last 10. Our faculty, staff and administrators have never worked harder to prepare for an academic year.
We wisely invested our CARES Act funding and financial support from our donors, allocating $3.5 million to help provide more than 3,000 students with scholarships, financial assistance and emergency funding. UAA also supported hundreds of faculty members with specialized training so they could prepare the highest-quality remote instruction possible. We prepared our facilities, implementing rigorous cleaning protocols, for courses where face-to-face delivery is the only way to meet the student learning outcomes, and we shifted our bookstore to a fully online system.
UAA also embraced technology to help our students connect in the virtual world. In May, we launched Seawolf Mentor, a tech-based peer mentoring program that already has 450 pairs of matched mentors and mentees. This August we experienced a 170% increase in downloads of our Seawolf Tracks mobile app that helps students find study partners in their classes. We are also piloting a new mobile app this fall to increase peer-to-peer remote studying. In the first two weeks of the semester students have interacted more than 60,000 times to study, engage and collaborate with their classmates online.
Economic recession often leads people back into higher education, and we are ready. UAA launched its first annual renewable scholarship called 49th Finishers to help Alaskans with some college but no degree return to UAA to finish their studies. We awarded over 100 of these scholarships this fall. Additionally, UAA began offering Fast Track Career certificates in high demand job areas that can be completed in three semesters or less. These have proven popular among those hoping to better position themselves in Alaska’s job markets.
In addition to 49th Finishers, UAA introduced an enrollment incentive award to encourage students who normally might not qualify for financial aid aside from student loans to consider taking an additional course. Nearly 100 students took advantage of this award, with close to half of those students transitioning to full-time status. The award helps offset tuition costs for the extra course, but it also allows students to work toward graduation faster and more efficiently. A faster path to graduation means students can enter the workforce sooner with greater earning potential. We are proud of these options that make going back to school and pursuing a degree more attainable for members of our community.
Although college enrollments across the nation are down, some in double digits, UAA’s enrollment decline was small. On the first day of the fall semester, the number of students enrolled at the Anchorage campus was about 5% lower than the same time last year. Across Anchorage and all our community campuses, it was roughly 9%. Our graduation rate held steady in the spring.
In spite of shake-ups occurring across the country in higher education, UAA continues to deliver relevant and excellent open access higher education in Alaska. Given the unprecedented drama the University of Alaska system has endured over the past few years, including historic budget cuts and program eliminations, a calm start to this fall semester was a welcome one. College during COVID? Yes indeed.
Claudia Lampman, Ph.D. is the vice provost for student success and professor of psychology at UAA.
Claudia Lampman, Ph.D., vice provost for student success and professor of psychology at UAA.: