BLACKFOOT — Like most East Idaho teens, Colton Schroeder didn’t go to college after graduating from high school in 2015.
He got a job spraying preservatives on potatoes.
“I never really had intentions of going to college after high school,” said the Blackfoot High graduate. “I always figured I could just work construction or farm with my grandpa.”
Schroeder is part of a growing number of Idaho students either delaying or abandoning plans for college. The percentage of Idaho students continuing their education after high school has dropped for the second year in a row, settling below 50 percent.
College enrollment is even bleaker in East Idaho, where fewer than 40 percent of 2015 high school graduates signed up within a year of graduating.
Church missions have long slowed the rate at which East Idaho students go on to some form of postsecondary education or training. But in the wake of a statewide push to improve go-on rates, other factors are contributing to the declines in East Idaho:
- An improved economy is allowing more graduates to find better jobs that support their lifestyles.
- A rise in college tuition creates fears about being able to pay for college and the debt that often comes with it.
- Idaho’s high school graduation rates rank below the national average.
- Shifting demographics, including a surging Hispanic population, affects post-secondary education enrollment.
“It takes a lot to get there, and college is incredibly expensive nowadays,” said Rockland High School registrar and counselor Ladd Perman. “But we all need to do a better job of helping students know that they can do it.”
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The latest numbers
The state’s first-year go-on rate has fallen eight percentage points since 2013, settling below 50 percent. In East Idaho, the first-year go-on rate has slipped even more, to 38 percent, with all of the area’s large high schools experiencing declines since 2014:
- Hillcrest High School (Bonneville district): -9 percentage points.
- Idaho Falls High School (Idaho Falls district): -8 percentage points.
- Skyline High School (Idaho Falls district): -7 percentage points.
- Blackfoot High School(Blackfoot district): -6 percentage points.
- Bonneville High School(Bonneville district): -6 percentage points.
- Rigby High School (Jefferson County district): -5 percent percentage points.
- Madison High School (Madison district): -4 percent percentage points.
- Pocatello High School (Pocatello-Chubbuck district): -3 percentage points.
- Highland High School (Pocatello-Chubbuck district): –3 percentage points.
East Idaho’s smaller high schools saw even sharper drops in the most recent first-year go-on rates, with Preston and West Side high schools declining 13 and 14 percentage points, respectively.
“I really don’t have any good answers for you,” said Preston High School counselor Carrie Sanders. “So many of them tell us that they are going to college, but obviously, they aren’t.”
What may be affecting East Idaho’s go-on rates
For decades, the higher number of students opting to serve LDS missions has plagued go-on rates in East Idaho’s 13 counties, which are home to a much higher percentage of Latter-day Saints than the rest of the state. In 2000, more than 60 percent of East Idaho’s population identified as LDS, compared with about 13 percent throughout the rest of the state.
At least 30 percent of LDS young adults delay entering college in order to go on to two-year missions — and the numbers are increasing.
But other things are now affecting the downward trend.
Idaho’s 78.9 percent graduation rate ranks No. 39 nationally, well below the nationwide average. “We’ve got to get more kids graduating — that’s always an important step,” said Blackfoot High School college and career counselor Amy Slack.
There’s also the ever-growing expense of college. In 2014, tuition rose by at least 3.5 percent for full-time students at each one of Idaho’s three public universities. “That’s the biggest thing I hear from students who are getting ready to graduate — they are afraid of all that debt,” Slack said.
Slack pointed to a recent Blackfoot High graduate who had planned on going to college right after high school — until he received a job offer from the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an irrigation systems operator. Now the former student gets $13.84 an hour and a full benefits package.
After the job offer, Slack said, the student asked her to help him drop his college classes.
Hispanics are Idaho’s fastest-growing demographic, and they are even less likely to go on to college. Their go-on rate is 6 percentage points lower than non-Hispanics’.
To reverse the trend, East Idaho school districts have integrated college courses for native Spanish speakers. The courses help students develop skills necessary for college-level academics. American Falls and Snake River school districts are offering dual-enrollment Spanish communications classes. The Aberdeen School District is also considering adding the courses.
“Our job is to make the transition as smooth as possible for the migrant students, but also to help Hispanic students as much as we can,” said American Falls Spanish liaison Jocelyn Lopez.
Educators are seeing a positive shift: Hispanic enrollment in postsecondary education tripled in the last 10 years, from roughly 3,100 in 2004 to 9,400 in 2014.
Read more in-depth reporting from Idaho EdNews: “Idaho’s go-on woes. What happened? What happens now?”