Analysis: A long-term enrollment challenge looms for Idaho higher ed

Colleges have been fighting the enrollment crisis of the day: recruiting students in the COVID-19 era.

But other enrollment issues loom on the horizon in Idaho.

The issues have to do with demographics: growth and birth rates. And they could hit Idaho’s four-year schools in different ways.

A recent State Board of Education report breaks down the demographics in detail. It’s wonky — OK, you’ve been given fair warning — but it’s also interesting.

It’s also vitally important. Student recruiting is key to filling campus lecture halls and dorm rooms. Enrollment is also an essential piece of the business plan, as Idaho’s colleges and universities try to fill their coffers.

Fewer babies = fewer college-bound students

The demographic shift began during the upheaval of the Great Recession.

In 2007, 25,023 babies were born in Idaho — a one-year record.

But the birth rate began to decline during the recession, as couples put off (or ruled out) parenthood. And the rate has never recovered.

In 2020, 21,540 babies were born in Idaho.

That translates to a 14% decline over 13 years.

Fewer babies mean fewer potential college students.

But one factor could work in Idaho’s favor: the state’s rapid and often uncomfortable growth spurt.

Idaho’s high school graduating class should peak in 2025 — 18 years after the record baby boom of 2007. Idaho’s graduating classes will decline after 2025, according to Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projections, but it won’t be as severe as the national dropoff. That’s because of in-migration, as newcomers move to Idaho.

Idaho is growing — but not all of Idaho

In-migration is good news for college recruiters. But it’s better news for Boise State University.

Boise State recruits many of its in-state students from Southwest Idaho — a growth hotbed. According to state Department of Labor forecasts, the population of 15- to 19-year-olds in Southwest Idaho should increase by 7% between 2019 and 2029. “This suggests that there will be an increasing number of high school graduates in a region well served by BSU,” State Board Chief Research Officer Cathleen McHugh wrote.

For Idaho’s other four-year schools, the forecast is mixed.

The University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College both draw well from Southwest Idaho and the Panhandle, another growth hotspot. But in North-Central Idaho — important recruiting turf for the U of I and Lewis-Clark — the Department of Labor says the population of 15- to 19-year-olds is likely to decrease.

The shrinking local market is a serious concern, said U of I vice provost for strategic enrollment management Dean Kahler, and it underscores the need for Idaho to improve its dwindling college go-on rate statewide. “It’s a big deal. We do get a lot of our students from 100 miles or less.”

In a statement Wednesday, President Cynthia Pemberton said Lewis-Clark is “carefully reviewing” the State Board report, but she said she believes the college is “well-positioned” to serve North-Central Idaho, and beyond.

On the other end of the state, Idaho State University also recruits heavily in its backyard. The Department of Labor says Southeast Idaho’s population of 15- to 19-year-olds is likely to remain stagnant over the next several years.

Idaho State associate vice president for enrollment Staci Phelan is concerned as well, especially because a national decline in the birth rate will force Idaho’s colleges to work even harder to maintain their local market share. “We really anticipate that the competition for our Idaho students will be fiercer than ever.”

Idaho’s out-of-state pipeline

But it was out-of-state enrollment that helped Idaho’s colleges ride out the pandemic. Pitching the promise of in-person learning — and at prices that are competitive with in-state tuition at home — Idaho schools drew a growing share of their enrollment from neighboring states.

In fall 2021, a majority of Boise State’s first-year students came from outside Idaho, for the first time in school history.

But is it sustainable? The State Board report calls that into question.

The bulk of Boise State’s out-of-state recruits have come from the West Coast — from California, Oregon and Washington. The Boise State-bound recruits are disproportionately white, compared to the states’ overall populations. “There is a projected decrease in the number of white public high school graduates from these states,” McHugh wrote. “This could lead to challenges for BSU in the future if their enrollment patterns remain the same.”

Boise State declined comment on the report this week; university officials said they wanted more time to review it.

The U of I faces similar out-of-state recruiting questions. The U of I employs five full-time recruiters outside Idaho, and as the State Board report notes, the university draws many of its out-of-state students from the West Coast. Kahler expects increased competition for students, especially in large population centers, but he believes the U of I’s small college town setting is a draw.

“We got the right messages for those audiences,” he said, “but we’ve just got to continue to bring our story to the top of the page.”

An existential and ongoing challenge

Enrollment is the most existential challenge facing colleges and universities, in Idaho and beyond. And even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campuses and prompted many students to drop out or stay home, Idaho’s colleges and universities were struggling to attract in-state students.

Idaho’s colleges and universities lost some 5,000 students during the 18 months after the pandemic, although they have since erased much of this 8.7% decrease.

Now, there is plenty of cautious optimism. Applications and admissions were up this spring, suggesting a possible enrollment surge this fall. And when the State Board released its demographics report last week, it came with a hopeful guest opinion from board President Kurt Liebich. “Due to inward migration, Idaho is in an enviable position compared to other states,” he wrote.

But forecasting enrollment is a dicey proposition — over the long haul, but even in the short run.

Nine weeks out, Kahler remains hopeful. But now it’s a matter of turning applications and admissions into enrollment. “We’re seeing a lot of late activity. … It’s an adventure.”

Idaho State saw an enrollment increase last fall, after a decade of dropoffs. Phelan says the numbers could be flat this fall, or down slightly, but she won’t have a good idea of what to expect for another month or so.

But Phelan knows Idaho State is fighting a host of other variables that can dissuade a Southeast Idaho high school graduate from choosing college: an abundance of local jobs, a shortage of on-campus and off-campus housing and high gas prices that could deter commuter students.

“We do our best to mitigate what we can control,” she said. “We know there’s a lot we can’t.”

That’s the short term. In the years to come, Idaho universities will have to work through some daunting demographics — something also out of their control.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 



Kevin Richert

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 "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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