Are Alaska’s students ready for life after high school? The evidence says no. Here’s what we can do about it.

Emily Ferry, STEPS Collective Impact Coordinator

Since time immemorial, Alaskans have taught their children the skills needed to survive and thrive in our unique environments. Those skills may look different in modern society, but research indicates that connecting to culture, family, and community values is a powerful way to motivate students to pursue training and education.

Janelle Vanasse is the superintendent of Mount Edgecumbe High School and previously a longtime school administrator in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. She has been examining the disconnect between the bright, motivated high school students she has worked with and the low numbers graduating from college or career and technical training.

“While living in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, it was evident to me that being grounded in culture was a positive life skill. Through the generosity of the Yup’ik people, I learned how culture influences ways of thinking and navigating the world. Being more purposeful about bringing this awareness into the postsecondary transition seemed relevant.”

Janelle has made it easy for schools to assess how they are building on cultural identity as a strength by developing the “Rethinking Readiness” tool. The assessment tool is available for free at    

Are Alaska’s students “ready?”

According to the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, Alaska ranks 50th in the nation when it comes to the number of high school students enrolling, persisting, and completing college. Helping more students complete postsecondary education is becoming an urgent matter for Alaska’s schools. 

Alaska has the lowest rates of postsecondary enrollment and completion in the nation, and the trend is getting worse. Source: ACPE Alaska Higher Education Almanac

Meanwhile, according to the Alaska Department of Labor, 65% of jobs will require a postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. Alaska is falling short of this target, and many employers say they cannot find teachers, healthcare workers, technicians, and tradespeople to fill job openings. According to Measure of America, Alaska also has the highest rate of disconnected youth—young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school—of any state. 

Is cost the issue?

No, and yes. According to the Commission on Postsecondary Education, Alaska’s students face one of the lowest cost burdens in the nation (meaning it costs less for Alaskans to go to college.) There are numerous scholarships available, including the Alaska Performance Scholarship (APS). 

However, a recent study evaluating the APS found that many students who could benefit from the scholarship were ineligible, often due to outdated testing requirements. When the testing requirement was removed during the pandemic, the number of Alaska Native students who were eligible more than doubled, the number of eligible black students tripled, and the number of eligible Native Hawian and Pacific Islander students quadrupled. 

The report makes a number of recommendations for improving equity of access to the APS. Other factors included not meeting curriculum requirements or simply not knowing that the scholarship existed until it was too late in their high school career to meet the requirements.

What are the other barriers?

Not surprisingly, there are multiple. At the statewide Alaska CAN conference held each year in early spring (this year’s conference is March 1 – 3rd, 2022; mark your calendars), participants identified access, exposure and preparation, navigation, support, representation and identity. 

The barrier that probably warrants the most attention is identity. In her book, Ready, Willing, and Able, Harvard Professor Mandy Savitz-Romer writes that identity and motivation are two prerequisites that are often overlooked in postsecondary access programs and curriculum. She explains that students first need to envision their future and believe that it is possible to pursue and stick with college or career training.

Savitz-Romer also points to studies showing that students are more likely to complete college and other postsecondary programs when they tap into intrinsic motivation. For example, a student’s desire to care for their family or help their community may spark intrinsic motivation, whereas extrinsic motivation like higher future income often has little lasting impact. Janelle Vanasse’s Rethinking Readiness tool also focuses on identifying ways schools can use the collectivist culture common in many Alaska Native communities and families to help foster intrinsic motivation.   

Students who responded to the Alaska Performance Scholarship survey shared insights about how to increase the use of the scholarship, including better guidance from schools and  “more motivation all the way around.” 

How can school boards help?

In a presentation at the AASB Annual Conference, Sana Efird, director of the Commission on Postsecondary Education, shared ways school boards, administrators, teachers, and counselors can make small changes with big impact:

  • Help students understand who they are and who they want to be. Social and Emotional Learning and culturally responsive curriculum help lay the foundation for future planning; exposure to jobs and role models from your community help students envision what’s possible. 
  • Offer experiences for students to try out roles. Dual enrollment, summer bridge programs, PSAT practice courses, and internships can help give students the confidence that fuels the belief that they can pursue postsecondary education.
  • Encourage planning for life after high school. Be sure to include families, tap into AKCIS, offer one-on-one guidance, and partner with Tribes & community organizations. Start the conversation early when students are in middle or even elementary school.
  • Communicate requirements for the Alaska Performance Scholarship. Show the APS requirements alongside minimum graduation requirements with clear pathways to achieve both. 
  • Review data for disproportionality. What populations are in Honors, AP, and dual enrollment? What populations are in support classes? Are all students being recruited into strong post-secondary pathways? Evaluate progress with the Rethinking Readiness assessment.