State Board seeks to increase scholarship investment

TWIN FALLS — As part of a multifaceted strategy to improve college access and affordability, the State Board of Education will ask the Legislature to increase state funding for a popular scholarship.

When the Legislature convenes Jan. 8, the State Board will seek a $5 million bump for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship.

If lawmakers go along with the proposal, annual scholarship funding would increase from $10 million to $15 million.

“We know affordability is one of the largest barriers for going on, so the board is especially focused on getting additional state funding available to reduce that barrier for our highest-need students,” State Board Executive Director Matt Freeman said.

Wednesday’s discussion of postsecondary education, funding and barriers again signals that the 2018 legislative session may be busy on the higher education front. Earlier this month, Gov. Butch Otter promised to ask the Legislature to “structurally change how we run higher education.”

Created by Otter and the Legislature, the Opportunity Scholarship is a renewable need- and merit-based scholarship that provides up to $3,500 per year to Idaho residents who graduate from a state high school and maintain a 3.0 GPA or better.

The scholarship has proved so popular that there is a waiting list of eligible students who have not been able to take advantage of it, State Board members said during an afternoon workshop Wednesday in Twin Falls.

More than 3,700 students are receiving the scholarship this year, state records show. But the application pool includes more than 5,200 students.

David Hill

During Wednesday’s discussion, State Board member David Hill zeroed in on state research that found that an Opportunity Scholarship offer “increases the immediate college attendance rates for eligible students by 9 percentage points.”

Hill said that research points to affordability as a significant barrier to higher education in Idaho.

For years, state policymakers have focused on a goal of getting 60 percent of Idaho’s young adults obtain some form of postsecondary education, be it a two- or four-year degree or a professional certificate. But the state isn’t close to its goal, and in September, Otter’s higher education task force pushed the state’s target date back by five years, to 2025.

Last week, Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert published a four-day series on high education funding, goals and barriers, including a full day devoted to the affordability issue.

As Richert reported, the task force also recommended lowering the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship’s GPA threshold from 3.0 down to 2.5, in hopes of reaching even more students.

Tracie Bent, the State Board’s chief planning and policy officer, said officials will likely wait to see if funding is increased before deciding whether to lower the scholarship’s GPA threshold.

The State Board meeting continues Thursday at the College of Southern Idaho with a full agenda. Items include:

  • Prioritizing the 12 recommendations from the higher education task force.
  • Presenting an annual review of teacher evaluations.
  • Discussing Idaho’s new public school accountability system, including the use of student engagement surveys.
  • Considering potential new or expanded academic programs for Boise State University, College of Eastern Idaho and Idaho State University.

Further reading

The deadline to apply for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship is March 1. More information about eligibility requirements is available online.

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