Analysis: Idaho’s fast-track, $4 million leap into digital higher ed

Idaho will try to step up its digital higher education game — and fast. The state has some money for the job: $4 million it needs to spend by Dec. 31. But the state also has a wealth of unanswered questions.

The State Board of Education gave the Idaho Online project the go-ahead Thursday morning, hoping to make a difference — and fast — for traditional students and displaced workers in a time of pandemic. As for those unanswered questions, the State Board said it will work through them along the way.

Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton

It’s worth a reset to review how we got here so quickly.

  • Earlier this summer, the State Board assembled a working group to look at online higher education in other states, and toss around options for Idaho. The group settled on two options: something of a standalone institution, given the working name “New U,” and a clearinghouse model building on existing online programs.
  • Meanwhile, Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton and College of Eastern Idaho President Rick Aman collected an inventory of Idaho’s online programs. The findings surprised even Pemberton: The state’s two- and four-year schools already offer 200 certificates or degrees. “We are more robust than many fully online institutions and organizations,” Pemberton told the State Board last week.
  • Then there’s the money. The State Board urged Gov. Brad Little to put some federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money into digital learning. On June 26, Little’s Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee unanimously approved the board’s $4 million request.

That funding creates a sense of urgency, and drives the timetable. Idaho must spend this CARES Act money by the end of the calendar year. The state will use the $4 million to kick off a three-year Idaho Online rollout, with nearly half of this money going toward a common “learning management system” students and faculty can use anywhere in the state. Because of the Dec. 31 deadline, the State Board might get permission to bypass the normal bidding process for the rollout, board chief academic officer TJ Bliss said Thursday morning.

Of course, the ongoing pandemic also drives the timetable. As coronavirus case numbers grow rapidly across Idaho — casting a long shadow over college and university fall reopening plans — digital learning takes on new importance. As Bliss noted, it could be the vehicle that allows students to continue their education safely. Unstated Thursday, but also important: If digital learning keeps students enrolled, it could help offset potentially devastating losses in tuition revenue for the colleges and universities.

The State Board is also dusting off an idea from the not-too-distant past.

In 2017, then-Gov. Butch Otter’s higher education task force recommended a digital campus concept. The idea then was to build surge capacity — to accommodate the estimated 40,000 new students needed for Idaho to meet its ambitious but elusive “60 percent” postsecondary completion goal.

Emma Atchley

That history wasn’t lost on State Board member Emma Atchley, a member of Otter’s task force.

“Our primary recommendation was to have this kind of a system in Idaho,” she said last week. “I’m delighted that it’s coming to fruition, even though the trigger for it was not a particularly desired start to such a thing.”

One thing was clear Thursday: The State Board still has a lot to sort out.

The board hasn’t figured out a governance structure. It’s only clear what the board doesn’t want. By rejecting the “New U” model, board members showed no interest in opening a ninth state institution.

Pricing is another unknown. Part of the problem is the State Board is still figuring out what existing online programs cost students. Costs can vary widely, depending on academic discipline, and depending on whether students are Idaho residents, Pemberton told the board Thursday.

Then there’s the question of what, exactly, Idaho Online is going to look like for the students who use it. Stressing the importance of simplicity — and the need to help students get a degree quickly and inexpensively — State Board member Andrew Scoggin said Idaho Online needs to provide users with something different and intuitive. The state won’t get the job done by simply cutting and pasting the digital programs already offered by the colleges and universities.

Ultimately, the State Board is betting it can create a new platform that will bring more Idahoans into higher education — social-distancing students, rural residents, out-of-work adults returning to school. In a business setting, State Board member Kurt Liebich said Thursday, some market research would take place before the launch.

In the end, Liebich and the rest of the board supported the launch Thursday.

And by higher education standards, this looks like a fast startup.

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