Legislative roundup, 1.27.21: In an another ominous sign, college scholarship applications decrease

Idaho scholarship applications are down this school year, and that could foreshadow a continued decrease in college enrollment.

As of Jan. 20, the state has received 3,181 new applications for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship, which provides need-based aid for students attending college in state. That represents a 10 percent dropoff from the same time a year ago, when the state had received 3,541 applications.

State Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman cited another warning sign Wednesday. This year, fewer students and parents are filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is needed to qualify for federal grants, loans and work-study jobs, in addition to the Opportunity Scholarship.

Matt Freeman. (Idaho EdNews file photo.)

“These can be leading indicators for fall enrollment, especially for our low-income students,” Freeman told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Wednesday morning.

The application numbers continue a troubling trend that has unfolded during the coronavirus pandemic. Only 38 percent of last spring’s high school graduates continued their education in the fall — a dropoff of 7 percentage points, translating to about 1,400 students. Fall enrollment numbers were more mixed, with the University of Idaho and Idaho State University reporting declines, and Boise State University and Lewis-Clark State College reporting some slight increases.

JFAC is looking at a hold-the-line budget for the Opportunity Scholarship, managed by the State Board. Gov. Brad Little has recommended putting $27.8 million into the state’s various scholarship and grant programs, virtually unchanged from a year ago.

In 2020, legislators added $7 million in ongoing money to the Opportunity Scholarship, a “last dollar” program designed to help students defray the cost of college.

“The Opportunity Scholarship remains a make-it-or-break-it for many students,” Freeman said.

This year, slightly more than 7,000 students received an Opportunity Scholarship.

The State Board could get another glimpse in enrollment trends by March 1. That’s the deadline for students to apply to renew their state scholarships. More than half of this year’s scholarships are renewals, as opposed to first-time awards.

The State Board has wide-ranging authority over a variety of education programs, as reflected in the agency’s budget requests.

This year’s budget includes a transfer of 18 IT and data management staffers from the State Department of Education. Lawmakers made this shift a year ago, and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra took the issue to the state Supreme Court, in an unsuccessful bid to keep the jobs in the SDE.

In 2021-22, the State Board could take over the Office of School Safety and Security, which conducts safety inspections at every school in the state, on a three-year rolling schedule. The office and its six full-time jobs have been housed under the state’s Division of Building Safety.

Community colleges make budget pitch

Idaho’s four community colleges could be in line for a 5.4 percent funding increase.

Gov. Brad Little has recommended putting nearly $50.8 million in general fund tax dollars into the community college system, up from $48.2 million.

Some of the increase will go towards addressing the state’s nursing shortage. If lawmakers sign on, the College of Western Idaho, the College of Southern Idaho and North Idaho College would split $600,000 to hire faculty and expand their nursing programs.

CSI President Dean Fisher said the state’s money — and a $100,000 match from the college — would allow CSI to add 40 seats to its nursing program. This would allow the college to serve students who are now stuck on a waiting list, Fisher told JFAC Wednesday.

Little’s community college recommendation also provides CWI, CSI and NIC more than $1.2 million to accommodate increasing enrollment and $1 million for a grant program for zero-cost college textbooks. As he does for the state’s four-year institutions, Little recommends using budget reserves to help cover coronavirus-related revenue losses; CWI, CSI, NIC and the College of Eastern Idaho would each receive $166,500.

Community colleges receive less than half of their funding from the state. The balance comes from local property taxes and student tuition and fees.

Still, a 5.4 percent increase would eclipse Little’s recommendations for K-12 (3.7 percent) and the four-year higher education institutions (2.6 percent).

House Education puts Tromp on the hot seat

Members of the House Education Committee grilled Boise State President Marlene Tromp over free speech issues and Republicans’ concerns that conservative values are under attack.

“There’s been numerous reports of a conservative line of thinking being frowned upon at the university,” Rep. Charlie Shepherd, R-Pollock, told Tromp.

Reps. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, and Shepherd took turns telling Tromp they’ve heard reports of conservative students being looked down upon or not given equal standing after challenging professors or sharing views informed by the Bible.

Boise State University President Marlene Tromp participates in Wednesday’s meeting. Screenshot courtesy of Idaho In Session.

Tromp took each question in stride and said the university is committed to free speech for all students and campus members. Tromp pledged to set up additional meetings with legislators and campus leaders and said she was happy to share curricular materials and course descriptions.

“We want to lift up all those voices and make sure they can speak,” Tromp said.

Wednesday’s conversation didn’t happen in a vacuum. Conservative legislators have applied heavy scrutiny to university budgets and programs over the past several years.

  • In July 2019, Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, and 27 legislators sent Tromp a letter opposing Boise State diversity efforts, such as hiring a American Indian liaison and holding Rainbow and Black graduation celebrations.
  • During the 2020 session, legislators killed the college and university budgets twice after expressing outrage over the same diversity and inclusivity programs.

Legislators didn’t provide any specific details or examples Wednesday, except for one. Shepherd said Boise State provided counseling and support for students after former Sen. Hilary Clinton lost the 2016 election. He questioned whether the same support was afforded to students after former President Trump lost to President Biden.

Tromp responded by saying the university offered a series of support and outreach programs for all students before, during and after the election.

“The impulse of that was to ensure that people understood that you could have deep convictions and still be engaged in dialogue even when temperatures ran high,” Tromp said. “So people who were distressed about the election outcome, people who were celebrating the election outcome, we actually did more. We did a broader range. We provided that to all of our students.”

Tromp and the presidents of U of I, Idaho State and Lewis-Clark participated in the hearing remotely, via video stream. Although several questions were pointed, Wednesday’s hearing was respectful and professional. At one point, Ehardt thanked Tromp for her efforts to protect the First Amendment, including freedom of religion.

Editor’s note: Idaho Education News covered Wednesday’s hearings remotely. 

Republish this article on your website