Analysis: In a pandemic, colleges struggle even more to attract Idaho graduates

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next year, Idaho Education News will provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of the challenges facing higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s our latest installment in this project.)

Before COVID-19, only 45 percent of Idaho’s high school graduates went straight to college.

Apparently, the pandemic is making matters even worse.

Across the board, fewer Idahoans enrolled in the state’s colleges and universities, a 3 percent decrease overall. For first-year students, however, the decreases were even more stark — 6 percent at the colleges and universities, 12 percent in career-technical programs.

Leslie Webb

“I really hope the decrease in our first-year students is a one-year blip,” said Leslie Webb, Boise State University’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.

Webb isn’t alone.

The state has spent a decade trying to sell high school graduates on continuing their education. Idaho’s education, business and political power structure has agreed on one basic point: The state’s economic health rides on building a better-trained and better-educated work force.

The state has put well in excess of $100 million of taxpayer dollars into the effort. But despite the massive cash infusion — in additional college scholarships, in free dual-credit classes for high school students, and more — the state has been treading water. The “go-on rate,” the percentage of high school graduates who immediately enrolled in college, has remained virtually unchanged in recent years. For the high school graduating class of 2019, that go-on rate came in at 44.8 percent.

But for a real-time look at what’s happening on the campuses, let’s dig into the fall enrollment numbers. Colleges and universities measure these newcomers by counting their first-time student numbers.

And nearly across the board, at Idaho’s public colleges and universities, the in-state numbers aren’t good:

  • Boise State reported 1,441 first-time in-state undergrads, a 12 percent decrease and a five-year low.
  • The University of Idaho reported a 6 percent decrease.
  • Idaho State University reported an 8 percent dropoff.
  • This trend wasn’t confined to Idaho’s four-year universities. All four of the state’s community colleges reported similar decreases, although the numbers varied widely. The College of Southern Idaho reported a 1 percent decrease, although that translates to a modest difference of eight students. At the College of Eastern Idaho, a 24 percent dropoff of first-year in-state students ran counter to an overall enrollment increase.

Digging a bit deeper, there are other signs of trouble in these first-year student enrollment reports. In general, the colleges and universities struggled to attract first-generation students and students who qualify for financial aid. These are two crucial student groups, as Idaho hopes to draw more students into the higher education system.

The bad numbers are concealed, somewhat, by an increase in out-of-state student enrollment. “More students came to Idaho and many told us it was specifically because they wanted in-person instruction,” State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield wrote in a guest opinion last week. It’s a troubling little plot twist: Students outside Idaho are seeing a value in Idaho colleges and universities, while many in-state students remain unsold.

Yes, that’s a lot of doom and gloom.

There is one outlier, however.

Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton

In Lewiston, Lewis-Clark State College boosted its first-time in-state enrollment by 10 percent. Numbers are also up in the subgroups of first-generation students and students who qualify for financial aid.

President Cynthia Pemberton said she isn’t taking anything for granted. She’s already worrying about spring enrollment — and maintaining the face-to-face learning her students demand, even as COVID fatigue kicks in.

But she attributes the fall numbers to outreach — staff, from top to bottom, working assertively to recruit students. She also thinks Lewis-Clark is leaning into its unique niche as a smaller public college.

“There is certainly a critical mass of students that know that this is what they want,” she said this week.

Lewis-Clark’s successes defy state and national trends.

On Thursday, the National Student Clearinghouse released its latest round of pandemic-era fall enrollment numbers. Overall undergraduate enrollment is down by 4.4 percent — but freshman enrollment is down by 13 percent.

At Boise State, Webb is trying to figure out what became of the high school class of 2020. The university tracks the students who were admitted to Boise State, but never showed up, more than a thousand students in all.

Webb is hearing some recurring themes — and in 2020, none of them should register as a surprise. Some students are sitting things out until the pandemic eases. Others say they’re dealing with a COVID-related financial hardship. Others don’t want to spend their money and time on online college courses, which was all Boise State and its sister institutions could offer during the spring shutdown.

And most of these students are sitting out college entirely. They didn’t choose another school over Boise State, Webb said. They didn’t enroll anywhere.

So, where does Webb go from here?

There won’t be a vaccine for the enrollment malaise. So Boise State will continue to do what it’s already been doing. The university will continue to try to pump up its need-based True Blue scholarship program. The university will keep trying to expand its on-campus housing, since residential students are more likely to succeed in the classroom.

In other words, Webb said, Boise State will stick with its evidence-based strategy to keep students in school.

It’s hard to argue against the results — for the state’s largest university, anyway. Boise State’s enrollment has grown rapidly in good times, and even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, its number of degree-seeking students increased slightly this fall.

But on the other hand, Idaho’s college and university system hasn’t hit on a formula to improve the state’s college go-on numbers, even before COVID-19. Something is missing, or insufficient, or both.

And there’s no guarantee that will change when the pandemic recedes.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday. 

More in-depth higher education coverage

Aug. 6: A pandemic makes old problems worse for Idaho higher education

Aug. 12: Idaho campuses prepare to reopen, but will students show up?

Aug. 24: Across the state, campuses open for an uncertain new year

Sept. 24: The feds’ coronavirus aid fills some gaps, but only some

Oct. 8: Boise State faces a financial reckoning

Nov. 3: New Boise State program seeks to guide students through gap year


Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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