“The pandemic has definitely made some permanent changes to not only our economy and the United States’ economy but the world’s economy,” said University of Alaska Anchorage Provost Denise Runge. “It’s not entirely clear what all of those changes are, but we do know that the process of education and training actually does better prepare you as an individual to be adaptable.”
And education doesn’t have to mean a college degree. For White and many other Alaskans trying to turn pandemic setbacks into silver linings, one-year career certificate programs may hold the key — and thanks to a partnership between UAA and the Municipality of Anchorage, these programs are financially within reach for more students than ever before.
On the Fast Track to better jobs
In late spring 2020, just as UAA was coming to the end of a spring semester that had been disrupted by the onset of the global pandemic, the chancellor at the time approached Runge with a challenge: She wanted Runge to co-chair a committee tasked with creating new programs to help Alaskans train for new careers — and quickly.
“She said, ‘Because of this pandemic, people are losing their jobs, they may need to train for a new career or upskill, and this is a good time to do it,’” Runge said.
Runge’s team sprang into action, working with faculty to rapidly identify programs and map out courses of study that followed two simple rules.
“No. 1, you had to be able to finish the program in a year,” said Runge, who was then serving as dean of UAA’s Community and Technical College. “No. 2, the programs had to be created out of things that we already do. That was the most important thing to me at the time as a dean, because I knew we didn’t have any extra money.”
By the time enrollment opened for the fall, UAA had created more than a dozen new Fast Track Career Certificates, all based on existing course options, designed to be completed within a year with no prerequisite work required. Students who complete Fast Track programs (in subjects as diverse as bookkeeping, phlebotomy, welding, IT help desk assistance, business and culinary arts, with more added in 2021) receive an occupational endorsement certificate, or OEC, that can give them a boost in the job market. OEC credits are also “stackable,” meaning a student who has earned an OEC can continue their education, applying the credit hours toward an associate or bachelor’s degree.
But to take advantage of the Fast Track program, students had to be able to afford it. That’s where the Municipality of Anchorage comes in.
An unusual partnership
Not long after Fast Track launched, the municipality granted UAA $3.1 million of its federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to administer scholarships to certificate-seeking students from the Anchorage area who have experienced unemployment since March 2020 or are economically disadvantaged. Eligible applicants may receive up to $9,000 for tuition, and as much as $9,000 more to cover living and other related expenses, including childcare.