After years of budget cuts to Alaska’s public university system, there aren’t many higher education programs that are growing. But on Tuesday, the coalition Recover Alaska announced it had put together $1.5 million to dramatically expand enrollment for master’s degree students at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Social Work.
Recover Alaska works to reduce excessive alcohol use and harm. Executive Director Tiffany Hall said the nonprofit identified a chronic shortage of qualified social workers as a key issue perpetuating the state’s worst-in-the-nation status for alcohol-attributed deaths.
“For a person in active addiction, it is incredibly challenging to admit the problem and ask for help,” said Hall. “When they do, we need to be ready. But a lack of qualified providers throughout our state prevents people from accessing help when they need it.”
Right now, UAA’s School of Social Work has capacity for 35 students seeking master’s degrees with a clinical license, and graduates about 25 a year. The plan is to step up enrollment gradually, up to 85 students five years from now. The university plans to continue delivering the program online only.
Southcentral Foundation is one of the organizations funding the grant, and one of the biggest employers of behavioral health and substance use treatment providers in the state. The lack of qualified social workers stresses the existing system and hampers expansion, said Michelle Baker, executive vice president of behavioral health services for the Alaska Native-owned nonprofit health care organization.
“Southcentral Foundation alone has 20 master’s level therapist vacancies, primarily due to four program expansions that we’ve launched in the last year,” Baker said.
Rasmuson Foundation CEO Diane Kaplan said her institution and others that contributed funding are all potential employers. Someone with a master’s degree in social work can work in a variety of settings, from philanthropy to preventative therapy to crisis care.
“Employer-led initiatives like this are appealing to potential students because they know there’s a job at the end of the education,” Kaplan said. “And a choice of jobs, and good jobs and well-paying jobs in a competitive environment in the state for employees.”
The grant money is a one-time gift, but university officials said the expanded master’s program will be financially self-sustaining through student tuition.
Other donors include Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, Providence Alaska, the Anchorage Assembly, the Alaska Department of Health and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.