Supporters touted the promise of getting more students into college, and serving workforce needs.
Opponents warned of a higher education version of “Hunger Games,” with Idaho colleges using their limited money to compete for a limited number of students.
On Wednesday, two of Idaho’s two-year colleges got the go-ahead to begin offering four-year degrees. But their proposals — which opened a rare and public rift between college and university officials — left the State Board of Education divided.
The State Board approved the College of Western Idaho’s proposal to offer a bachelor’s degree in business administration, over the continued objections of Boise State University. The board also gave the College of Eastern Idaho the go-ahead to offer bachelor’s degrees in operations management and digital forensics, after Idaho State University argued against the operations management program.
The two hours of board debate centered on a recurring question: Would the CWI and CEI bachelor’s programs fill unique niches — or would they cannibalize existing programs at the four-year schools?
CWI President Gordon Jones said the new business degree would be geared toward an older student population that commutes to class and squeezes part-time studies around work and family commitments. “We designed the school to meet these populations.”
By year five, CWI projects an enrollment of 150 students in its bachelor program. By contrast, nearly 4,700 students were enrolled in a host of business programs in Idaho in 2021-22 — largely at nearby Boise State.
The CWI major would inevitably compete with business programs at all the four-year schools, Boise State Provost John Buckwalter said. “This feels like a degree in search of a market instead of the other way around.”
The new four-year programs will offer bachelor’s of applied sciences degrees. These majors allow students to put their career-technical credits toward the bachelor’s degree. The two-year schools also say their programs will carry a lower price tag: $285 per credit hour at CEI, $170 per credit hour at CWI.
Offering bachelor’s programs at two-year schools is not a new concept. The College of Southern Idaho already offers its own operations management degree, and 33 students are enrolled in the program. And State Board policy lays out guidelines that allow two-year schools to move into four-year programs and four-year schools to offer two-year degrees.
Still, the board agonized over Wednesday’s proposals.
Board member Bill Gilbert said he wants to improve access to higher education. But he said the board needs to take time to fine-tune its own policy — which is up for discussion in February —— before shoehorning in new programs. “I think we’re doing it exactly backwards.”
Board member Shawn Keough said she had little sympathy for four-year schools like Idaho State — which didn’t seem interested in expanding its offerings before CWI and CEI came up with its operations management proposals. “They could have done it, but they didn’t.”
And board member Kurt Liebich wrestled to make sense of the claims and counterclaims about whether the new majors will help graduates find better jobs close to home. “Whose word do I take?” he asked. “Because I have to believe somebody.”
In the end, Liebich supported all three proposals.
The CWI program and the CEI operations management proposals passed on identical 5-3 votes. Keough and Liebich joined state superintendent Debbie Critchfield and board members Cally Roach and Cindy Siddoway in support. Board President Linda Clark, board members David Hill and Gilbert were opposed.
CEI’s digital forensics degree passed unanimously.
Up next: the Idaho State job search
The State Board will be back at work first thing Thursday morning — but behind closed doors.
The board will meet in executive session to interview the five finalists for the Idaho State president’s job.
Under state law, the board can’t hire a new president in closed session. The board will have to vote on that hire in open session at a later date.
The board hopes to hire a new president by the end of the year. President Kevin Satterlee is retiring on Dec. 31.