Idaho postsecondary numbers improve, but remain far from goal

More Idahoans are continuing their education after high school — and slowly, this number is improving.

But Idaho still has a long way to go to reach its much-touted — and highly elusive — “60 percent goal.”

That’s the takeaway from a new national study on postsecondary completion rates. The numbers look at what has happened in Idaho since 2008, and how Idaho stacks up nationally.

Here’s what you need to know.

First things first: What are the numbers?

In 2016, 40.6 percent of Idaho adults held either a college degree or a professional certificate.

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At least the trend is moving in the right direction. In 2008, only 34.6 percent of Idahoans held a degree or certificate. And Idaho’s numbers have gone up for four straight years.

And where does Idaho stack nationally?

Not so great.

For 2016, the national postsecondary attainment rate came in at 46.9 percent.

Idaho ranked No. 45 nationally — ahead of only Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada and West Virginia.

Here’s a kicker, and it’s important. Every state in the union has improved its postsecondary numbers since 2008. So while Idaho makes improvements — in hopes of offering the better-educated work force that employers demand — the competition is only intensifying.

What does this 40.6 percent number mean in terms of the ’60 percent goal?’

It’s hard to say exactly, since this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison.

The new study looks at 25- to 64-year-olds. Idaho’s “60 percent goal” is focused on a younger subset: the state wants 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds to obtain a college degree or professional certificate.

That might make it a little bit easier for Idaho to hit the 60 percent threshold someday. In 2015, 42 percent of the state’s 25- to 34-year-olds held a degree or certificate; for 25- to 64-year-olds, that number came in at 38.7 percent.

But any way you crunch the numbers, they’re a long way from 60 percent.

Does Idaho have highly educated “hotspots?”

Yes, although no county reaches that vaunted 60 percent number.

Latah County — home to University of Idaho — came in at 57.1 percent. Madison County — home to BYU-Idaho — was close behind at 55.3 percent. Rounding out the top five: Teton County, Ada County and Blaine County.

On the other end of the scale, tiny Clark County has the state’s lowest postsecondary completion rate, just 15.6 percent. Rounding out the bottom five are four other rural counties: Lincoln, Owyhee, Power and Jerome.

How do the demographic breakdowns look?

Again, not great.

When compared to the state’s white population, Idaho’s Latinos and American Indians are less likely to obtain a college degree or certificate. The completion rates for Latinos and American Indians are 12.7 percent and 20 percent, respectively — well lower than the national averages.

What are some reactions?

Somewhat mixed, like the Idaho numbers themselves.

“I appreciate seeing a national report that acknowledges the gains Idaho has made toward its goals,” state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said. “We know that we have a ways to go to reach our 60 percent goal. The good news is we have a plan and several strategies in place to help move the dial for Idaho.”

State Board of Education spokesman Mike Keckler focused in on the Complete College Idaho initiative, which funds a variety of campus hires and programs designed to help students succeed. Looking at students who entered college in 2015, more students are graduating from the two-year colleges, and more students remain enrolled in the four-year schools. “Idaho is making progress but we have to keep the momentum going.”

The authors of the report — the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis group pushing a national 60 percent goal — put the size of Idaho’s challenge into perspective.

“To reach state goals, the state will not only have to maintain current rates of attainment but also significantly increase the number of people who enroll in programs and earn all types of credentials beyond high school.”

So what does Idaho have in mind?

Gov. Butch Otter’s higher education task force issued a dozen recommendations in September, designed to entice more Idahoans to continue their education after high school.

Some ideas will come up during the final weeks of the 2018 legislative session — such as a proposal to put an additional $5 million into college scholarships. But it would take years to roll out some of the task force’s other recommendations, including a virtual campus that pushes college classes into community centers and rural libraries.

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