UPDATED: Gubernatorial candidates rip tuition and fee increases

(UPDATED, 11:23 a.m., May 2, with comments from Ahlquist.)

Republican Lt. Gov. Brad Little, Republican Tommy Ahlquist and Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff agree on one thing: Idaho is pricing some students out of college.

Each candidate criticized the latest round of student fee increases, approved by the State Board of Education on April 18. Fees for in-state students will increase by 3.5 percent at Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College, and 5 percent at Boise State University.

“We need fundamental changes and a new approach that reduces fees for our
students instead of burdening them with the cost of lack of leadership,” Ahlquist said in a statement Wednesday.

“We need to make college easier to attend, not harder,” Balukoff said last week. Balukoff’s Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Paulette Jordan, also expressed concerns over college affordability.

Idaho Education News canvassed the five major gubernatorial candidates about the fee hikes, and college affordability. Little, Balukoff and Ahlquist provided written responses; Jordan discussed affordability issues in an April 20 interview. Republican U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador has not responded to repeated requests for comment, dating back to April 24.

Idaho’s next governor will preside over the issue at a crucial juncture.

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The state continues to try to convince Idaho students to continue their education after high school. Idaho’s college go-on rate has remained flat; in 2017, only 45 percent of graduates went straight to college.

And while Idaho’s college fees rank sixth lowest in the nation, the sticker price is rising faster than the rate of inflation. From 2010-11 through 2017-18, average fees increased by 34 percent, compared to a 13 percent rate of inflation.

Here are thumbnails from the candidates:

Tommy Ahlquist: The State Board was placed in a difficult spot, “a prime example of the failure of the status quo,” the Boise developer and physician says. But continued fee increases, outstripping the rate of inflation, make it “very difficult” for students to pursue college.

Ahlquist pledges to address the affordability issue on several fronts. He says the state needs to look closely at higher ed overhead, cut waste and pass on the savings to students and families. He says the state needs to make sure high school dual credit classwork transfers to public universities. He also says the state needs to do a better job of connecting colleges and businesses, “and ensure we are only funding programs that successfully create the skills our kids need to get Idaho jobs.

Ahlquist also says he supports a recommendation from Gov. Butch Otter’s higher education task force — a digital campus that offers college classes in rural libraries and community centers.

Brad Little: The State Board decision undermines the state’s “60 percent goal” — a longstanding effort to convince 25- to 34-year-olds to obtain a college degree or professional certificate.

“Idaho’s colleges and universities faced a crisis during the last economic downturn, reflected in tuition increases at that time,” Little said Thursday. “Now, Idaho has the fastest-growing economy in the nation and the state has made investments in higher education since the recession. These consistent tuition increases do not support our need to maintain affordability for Idaho’s students.”

Little has proposed allowing colleges and universities to keep the sales taxes generated on campuses, and use this $2 million to $4 million a year to offset tuition increases. Little supports the digital campus proposal. He also says he supports expanding dual-credit programs, especially aligned to high-demand careers, and providing incentives for school districts that produce career-technical graduates.

A.J. Balukoff: The longtime Boise school trustee said the State Board was left no choice, “because our Legislature continually refuses to adequately fund higher education in this state.”

Balukoff supports the digital campus, and like the task force, he says the state needs to put more money into college scholarships. “But there is much more we can do,” he said.

Balukoff said he would seek to shore up the higher education budget, and push for funding for dual-credit and Advanced Placement classes and career-technical programs.

Paulette Jordan: In an interview, she said she supported the digital campus concept, but she is concerned about broadband coverage in rural Idaho.

Jordan believes the state needs to take several steps to make college more affordable — including an emphasis on Advanced Placement and career-technical programs. She wants to see universities and businesses work together more closely, to help students pursue the career of their choice. But since many college students are working minimum-wage jobs, scholarships are an essential.

“Unfortunately, many of our students do not have that simple access (to college) without scholarships.”

More reading: “Life After High School,” Idaho Education News’ in-depth look at the state’s stalled “60 percent campaign” recently received a regional Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting. Click here for the series. And click here for more campaign coverage on our elections page.

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