Mat-Su College

The effects of COVID-19 and its economic fallout on the University of Alaska are less than were feared earlier, the university’s acting president, Pat Pitney, said in a briefing last Tuesday.

Enrollment is down, as was expected, but far less than had been expected.

Student “head counts” are up, however, at Mat-Su College, or MSC, the UA campus in the Matanuska Susitna Borough. MSC offers two-year associate degrees in a variety of fields along with professional certifications and acts as a major student “feeder” to the university’s larger campuses like University of Alaska Anchorage that offer four-year degrees.

The Frontiersman incorrectly reported last week that enrollment was down at MSC but the number cites was for student credit hours, not the number of people taking classes, said Talis Colberg, MSC’s director.

The “head count” is up about 9 percent from this time last year, with 1,412 taking classes, although credit hours are down about 11 percent at 8,199 hours, Colberg said. Mat-Su is the only university campus showing an increase in head count.

All other UA campuses are down in head count and credit hours, although some programs at the universities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Southeast, such as ocean sciences, fisheries and business management are showing some growth, Pitney said in the Tuesday briefing, which was to reporters.

Both indicators are important but although credit hours are what students pay for in tuition and is important in revenues to the university. Usually head count and credit hours track each other but what is happening at MSC, Colberg said, is that more people are enrolled but are taking classes with fewer credit hours, Colberg said. That’s likely because 90 percent of classes at MSC are on-line this semester compared with the normal 15 percent.

Students in Mat-Su are used to attending classes in person, Colberg said. The change this year, due to COVID-10 virus is an abrupt shift, which can be unsettling. “We are now almost completely the reverse of normal,” he said. “The face-to-face (classes remaining) are some labs, some vocational like paramedicine and refrigeration and heating, and some language,” classes, he said.

Pitney said the university is down about 8 percent in statewide enrollment compared with a drop of 15 percent or even higher that was expected based on early registration last spring. “However, we have areas of strength and those are reflected in programs that are growing, such as ocean and fisheries studies along with business management,” she said.

The university has been hit hard with state budget cuts over several years and will accept another $20 million reduction in state funds next year, the final year of a phased reduction of $65 million in state funds over three years ordered by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

COVID-19 has also imposed costs on the university, some of which has been offset with federal funds, but the disruption of teaching in classes and the switch to on-line has taken a financial toll. For example, revenue from student dorm room rentals is down 25 percent at the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses and 50 percent in Juneau, Pitney said.

Direct COVID-19 costs for the fiscal year so far have totaled about $15 million (the fiscal year began July 1) with another $15 million expected by the end of the budget year next June 30. Overall, virus-related costs have been less than expected, Pitney said in her briefing to reporters.

Meanwhile, a gradual downsizing of the university will continue. With the end of the three years of cuts by the governor, “I am striving for a commitment to stability,” in state funds, Pitney said. “The Legislature and the administration will see that we have down-sized, and will be less dependent on state funds,” she said.

“The university will have a smaller footprint (in costs) but will be in a strong position,” to capitalize on areas of potential growth, she said.

Two initiatives began by former president Jim Johnson have been dropped. One is a major review of academic courses and programs with an eye toward consolidations, for example of engineering and business management programs offered by University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In her briefing Pitney said the UAF and UAA engineering programs will remain separate because they both put emphasis of different aspects of construction that would be difficult to teach in consolidated courses.

Another is the consolidation of University of Alaska Southeast and University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Over a period of several years the university has taken reductions prior to Gov. Mike Dunleavy taking office, and by the end of next fiscal year, or FY 2022, those will total $120 million a year, or 30 percent of state funds appropriated.

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