Small College is Big News in Alaska

From the front page of today's Anchorage Daily News

Tucked away in spruce woods off the Kenai Spur Highway is a new Bible college with just 37 students. It's a little-known enclave of evangelism, counseling and congressional spending

Look out.

The school in question, Alaska Christian College (ACC) focuses on "whole life discipleship" has received more a million dollars in federal grants over the past two years: $835,000 for operating, and $200,000 to set up a counseling center.

Is this a bad idea? One source thinks so:

"I've never even seen a college with 37 students; I've never known such a thing existed," said David Williams, the vice president for public policy at the Washington, D.C., watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. "In our estimation this is not something federal taxpayers should be paying for."

The grants were made possible with help from U.S. Senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, along with Representative Don Young. Murkowski visited the school this fall while on the campaign trail. As the Daily News reports, "the college Web site has pictures of her visit, with students holding Lisa Murkowski campaign signs, giving her a gift and singing her a song."

All of this might lead you to believe that ACC is nothing more than a religious boondoggle, which the rather large dictionary on a colleagues desk defines as "a project funded by the federal government out of political favoritism that is of no real value to the community or the nation."

A little full disclosure here. ACC is run by the
Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska
and I visited the school and interviewed some of the staff during a trip to Alaska in 2001.

But buried in the middle of the story is the crux of the matter. ACC was started three years ago by church leaders to address a glaring need--the alarming drop out rate of Alaska native college students.

Here's how the article describes the problem:

High dropout rates are a big problem when students leave small rural villages and go off to college. The University of Alaska has programs to help address the problem, such as the Rural Alaska Honors Institute on the Fairbanks campus. It brings students to the campus the summer before their freshman year to get them acclimated and then provides support once school begins.

A few more details, which give a bit more context. Only 10% of Native Alaskans who graduate high school go on to college, and of them, only 10% make it through the first quarter. The Daily News piece doesn't give the success rates at the Rural Alaska Honors Initiative, but ACC has an 80% retention rate. Native Alaskans youth also face alarming high rates of abuse (substance and sexual) and have suicide rates about 6 times the national average.

It's a big problem that the ACC folks believe they have found an innovative solution to by giving a safe, supportive environment that helps students make a transition to college. Since the federal funds involved here are from a fund for educational innovation, there seems to be a fit. Another factoid of note--the school was organized at the direction of Native Alaska leaders, and several key faculty are Native Alaska.

After completing one year at ACC, students transfer to larger schools, or they can return for a second year and take classes at a local community college, as the Daily News reported.

KPC director Gary Turner said nine or 10 students from the Christian school are now working toward their associate's degrees at his college, which is an extension of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"We have a great partnership with them. ... It helps to increase the diversity of our campus," he said.

There's a good story, with lots of unanswered questions. If ACC's program works, is it worth the cost? How does ACC's success rate compare to other similar programs? Should government funds be used for a "whole life discipleship" program?
What has the students' experiences been like?

No students are quoted in the article, and the one reference to them is misleading. Here's the quote in the story: "The college Web site has pictures of her visit, with students holding Lisa Murkowski campaign signs, giving her a gift and singing her a song." Those are three different pics. (A few students at the airport with signs, Murkowski with a plaque thanking her for the counseling center, and students singing.

This is the worst kind of religion story--one that settles for easy stereotypes, uniformed quotes, and incomplete reporting and then gets spread on the front page, all the while ignoring the real story.


Powered by Blogger