Outer Coast's two-year undergraduate program begins this August


January 11, 2024

Photo courtesy of Emily Tian, Outer Coast

Academic Dean and Indigenous Studies instructor Matthew Spellberg leads Outer Coast Year students in a Tlingit song and dance to start the fall 2023 semester.

In Sitka, an academic institution called Outer Coast is expanding into a two-year college - marking a major milestone for both the institution and higher education offerings in Alaska.

For the last handful of years in operation, Outer Coast has offered post-secondary and gap year programs for highschool graduates, as well as summer seminars for high school students to earn college credit.

While the year-long academic year programs and summer seminars cultivated Outer Coast's values and self-understanding, the institution worked towards its long-term goal to open an affordable, accessible liberal arts college in Alaska.

Now accepting applications for its first two-year undergraduate program, the major milestone for Outer Coast is being realized.

"Since [2015], we've been building sort of piece by piece to this two-year post-secondary undergraduate program. So we ran our first summer program in 2018 for high school students, and then our first post-secondary sort of semester program in the fall of 2020," Outer Coast's Executive Director Bryden Sweeney-Taylor told the Pilot. "[In August], we'll welcome our first class of two-year undergraduate students working towards associate degrees."

More staff and faculty are being hired on and the student body will increase as well for the inaugural cohort of undergraduates.

"Initially, we'll offer the summer seminar, continuing that program for high school students, and then only the two-year undergraduate associate program for high school graduates. We will, at least initially, not offer any sort of semester-long programs with the launch of the college proper," said Sweeney-Taylor.

As a gap year route or a two-year college, it is not to be confused with a community college or trade school and does not offer major-specific degrees. Students get a robust two-year liberal arts education that sets them up for a number of different opportunities, including the position to transfer to a four-year college afterward, in a traditional sense.

"Students will be in a position upon graduation from Outer Coast to transfer with junior standing to finish undergraduate degrees at other institutions or to remain within the University of Alaska system to complete their degree," said Sweeney-Taylor.

Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, born and raised in Sitka and Alaska state representative for the last decade through 2022, founded Outer Coast in pursuit of bringing higher education back to Sitka's historic Sheldon Jackson College campus during the academic year.

Deep Springs College is a small, 26-student, two-year liberal arts college in the high desert, east of the Sierras in California. It is a working cattle ranch and alfalfa farm where students "engage in a broad liberal arts curriculum, work the ranch and farm, and are the beneficial owners of the college during their time there, so they actually govern the institution - accepting the incoming class of students, hiring faculty, and serving on the Board of Trustees," said Sweeney-Taylor, who spent his first two years of college at Deep Springs.

He said Kreiss-Tomkins saw Deep Springs as a potential model to replicate in Sitka, and Sweeney-Taylor was teaching there when Kreiss-Tomkins "came through looking for people interested in what he was trying to build in Alaska" back in 2015.

Inspired by the innovative college models at Deep Springs, Outer Coast operates on the three pillars of academics, service work, and self-governance.

At Outer Coast, students have agency in decision making for the institution, similar to the example of Deep Springs. Outer Coast is deeply interconnected to the community of Sitka where students learn skills and tangible lessons as they serve, volunteer and connect to the town and with each other.

Outer Coast is a small place in a fairly small town. Students live in quarters right next to each other, with one another, and spend a lot of time together. Outer Coast says one of the most important qualities an applicant can have that aligns with the philosophy of the institution is a willingness to engage with the community and a receptiveness to learn both inside and outside of the classroom.

The institution breaks the traditional mold of higher education with its small cohort of students - expecting to enroll about 20 students in this first upcoming inaugural class.

The major push for recruitment is to reach interested students from Alaska, especially rural communities.

Outer Coast emphasizes the study of Alaskan Indigenous traditions. The vision for its college model intends to create a space where Indigenous histories and ways of knowing are centered. Indigenous Studies are taught beyond textbooks, and students take a Tlingit language course.

Students at Outer Coast take a variety of courses in the humanities, social sciences and STEM, similar to what would be offered at a four-year liberal arts college.

The courses will carry credit from University of Alaska Southeast, and students will be working towards an associate degree from UAS.

"It'll be like an associate degree taken at any of the campuses at UAS ... Except for in this case, it will be at Outer Coast and a specific set of courses that students will take towards that degree," said Sweeney-Taylor.

Outer Coast is in the process of finalizing an agreement with University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), which Sweeney-Taylor says will be made official this month in time for enrollment.

"In the meantime, we're still all full speed ahead on recruiting students," he said.

Still functioning and offering courses as Outer Coast, its inaugural cohort of students will ultimately earn an associate degree from UAS.

This will be the standard for a few years before Outer Coast can pursue completely independent accreditation in which students would be getting degrees from Outer Coast.

The first class of students must graduate from Outer Coast while it is a non-accredited institution, functioning under the umbrella of another school that is accredited, before Outer Coast can become an independently accredited college.

With so few new colleges founded, there is no clearly established pathway for this process. "This is sort of the approach that we've taken with the [guidance] of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which is the regional accreditor ... and we've been lucky to have the support of leadership at UAS, who said, we'd love to help to make this happen," said Sweeney-Taylor, "It's a great way of ... activating talent pipelines in Southeast and in supporting the higher education ecosystem for Southeast and for the state."

Affordability and accessibility "has been central to what we are trying to build," said Sweeney-Taylor.

"We are working with each student and family to identify what is a meaningful contribution that they can make to the cost of attendance for Outer Coast, and then providing scholarships and grants to cover the remaining costs," he said.

The fully loaded cost for this upcoming year will be $40,000 per student for tuition, room and board, supplies and so on. However, Sweeney-Taylor said the institution expects for most students to pay significantly less.

"To date across all of our programs, more than 90 percent of students have received financial aid," he said. "We're in a position to be able to support students, no matter their financial circumstances."

Outer Coast provides need-based scholarships directly to students based on their family's financial circumstances. Every student and family is met individually to identify the portion of the fully loaded cost that they can contribute, "which is no more than the expected family contribution ... identified through FAFSA, the federal student aid form."

Need-based scholarships from Outer Coast will "be the majority of support that students receive ... but students will also then have the opportunity to access Title IV funds ... available through the federal government, as well as potentially other scholarships that are accessible to them," said Sweeney-Taylor.

Outer Coast bounces off the expected family contribution identified by FAFSA and does its own version that is intentional about meeting people on an individual scale. Unlike the process at a typical college with a financial aid award letter, Outer Coast goes deeper and sits down with every admitted student for a conversation about realistic contributions and demonstrated needs.

All admissions decisions are made with no consideration of student financial need, and Outer Coast has committed to meeting full demonstrated need for every student in all of its programs, "so cost is never a barrier to attendance."

"We have five and a half years of experience doing that now and having those individualized conversations with students and families, across now more than 150 students. And there's never been a student who said to us, I can't attend because it costs too much," said Sweeney-Taylor. "That's been our commitment from the get-go is to say, we're going to work with every student and make sure that they can access Outer Coast."

The priority registration deadline for the first two-year undergraduate cohort closes Jan. 31. Further admissions will be granted on a rolling basis.


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