- Literature on the evolution of the American higher education system includes a historical and consistent debate over the definition of the higher education mission in the country. Recent debate focuses on mission differentiation between the university and the community college. Acknowledging systemic changes in higher education historically occurred within regions of the country and even individual states, Alaska higher education development serves as an interesting and relatively unstudied example and the focus of this study.
This research addressed this debate in higher education—mission definition—through a historical analysis of the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) over the 25-year period between 1984 and 2009. As the largest of the three major administrative units (MAUs) in the University of Alaska system based on credit hours and number of students, UAA became the logical focus of the study. In addition, higher education in Anchorage was greatly influenced by the 1987 state higher education merger as three of the five MAUs in the university system were located there. The purpose of this study was to historically describe the development of and changes in higher education missions—university and community college—at UAA
during this period. This historical analysis was designed to answer two primary questions:
- How have traditional university missions developed and changed at the University of Alaska Anchorage between 1984 and 2009?
- How have traditional community college missions developed and changed at the University of Alaska Anchorage between 1984 and 2009?
Data from predominantly primary sources were collected, evaluated, analyzed, and interpreted in four major areas: (a) the 1970s higher education background in Alaska, (b) the University of Alaska leadership (board of regents and presidents), (c) professional external reviews and reports of the university system, and (d) growth and development trends in university and community college trends at UAA.
There were six main findings from this study. First, public higher education in southcentral Alaska, in particular Anchorage, was in a tremendous amount of turmoil during the 1970s. This turmoil included debate and conflict primarily over missions, institutional identity, and organizational structure. Secondly, the 1987 merger eliminated the visible and separate identity of community college operations in Anchorage. The community campuses—Kenai Peninsula College (KPC), Kodiak College (KOC), Matanuska-Susitna College (MSC), and Prince William Sound Community College (PWSCC)—were somewhat spared this total identity elimination due to geographical separation from the main UAA campus in Anchorage and the retention of college names associated with these dispersed campus locations. A third finding was the similarity of recommendations from several external reviews
concerning the comprehensive—university and community college—missions within the University of Alaska system following the merger. The common theme within all these reviews was a need to better differentiate the missions of the university from the missions of the community college. Fourth, the type of student attending UAA has changed. In the years following the merger, the typical UAA student was older, less diverse, part-time, and non-degree seeking. By 2009, the characteristics were somewhat different; the typical UAA student was now younger, and more diverse, full-time, and degree seeking. A fifth finding was the consistency of growth and development in university missions at UAA. Baccalaureate and graduate degree programming and university-sponsored research prospered under the new university system structure at UAA. The growth in both baccalaureate and graduate degree programs exceeded the averages at UAA and far surpassed similar rates in certificate and associate degree programs. Finally, at UAA, many community college missions remained robust in operation, but often obscured in visibility and identity. These robust community college missions included academic programming focused on transfer education and technical or vocational education. At the same time, other community college missions faltered within the comprehensive university structure, particularly developmental education and continuing education and workforce development.