Analysis: Report raises important questions about two fast-growing programs

Idaho spent about $3 million on coursework and scholarships for students who didn’t pursue college.

And that was just in one year, according to legislative researchers.

The $3 million is just a fraction of what Idaho spends on its Advanced Opportunities and Opportunity Scholarship programs — but it still should be ample money to get the attention of inquisitive policymakers.

The Advanced Opportunities and Opportunity Scholarship programs are the biggest pieces of a multi-faceted — and multimillion dollar — campaign to improve the state’s languid “go-on rate,” and encourage high school graduates to continue their education. The go-on rate hasn’t really improved, and has fallen sharply during the pandemic. But for years, lawmakers have cut the checks for Advanced Opportunities and the Opportunity Scholarship, measuring the programs’ success by tracking participation.

By that metric, Advanced Opportunities has been a runaway success. The state has offered seventh- through 12th-graders $4,125 that they can spend on dual-credit courses, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams or career-technical programs. Offered what amounts to free money, thousands of students have jumped to spend it. For example, nearly 28,000 students took a dual-credit course in 2019-20, a 121 percent increase over five years.

The Opportunity Scholarship has also been on a growth trajectory. This year, the state awarded slightly more than 7,000 scholarships to students attending Idaho universities. In 2015, the state awarded barely 1,800 scholarships.

There’s no question that these programs have changed lives, opening college to some students who might not have gone otherwise.

But there’s a price — and naturally, as both programs have grown, so too have their costs. In March 2020, a bipartisan group of legislators requested a closer look.

“Idaho is missing a long-term vision for the state regarding expectations, funding and informed policy decision for public postsecondary education,” said then-Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, writing on behalf of four GOP colleagues and three Democratic lawmakers.

Brackett has since retired, but last week, the state’s Office of Performance Evaluations issued a report addressing the lawmakers’ request.

The OPE — the Legislature’s nonpartisan and respected research arm — tried to get at a basic question: Is the state’s big investment in Advanced Opportunities and the Opportunity Scholarship actually paying dividends?

The report offers no definitive answer. But researchers studied the high school graduating class of 2017, and here are their most eye-opening findings:

  • Of the 10,185 graduates who used Advanced Opportunities money, 2,331 stopped out of college and another 2,342 never enrolled in the first place — after the state covered $2.2 million of their costs.
  • A total of 1,376 graduates received an Opportunity Scholarship, and 233 stopped out of college. The stopouts received $787,000 in scholarship money.

The $3 million represents more than one-fifth of the $14.4 million in Advanced Opportunities and Opportunity Scholarship money that went to the class of 2017.

It’s important to make several other points.

First, stopouts can always come back to college and finish their degree.

Second, Advanced Opportunities covers CTE costs for students planning on entering the workplace. If these students graduate from high school with job-ready skills, it stands to reason that they aren’t enrolling in college.

Third, the OPE report tracked these students for just three years. In 2020, thousands of these 2017 high school graduates were still in college.

“Students who pursued a bachelor’s degree have not even had enough time to graduate in the ‘standard’ amount of time,” State Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman noted in his response to the report.

That’s fair.

But in fairness to the OPE researchers, they went out of their way to avoid making a sweeping statement about whether the programs are helping students get a job or a degree — or whether the programs are working. “These are important, but difficult questions,” the report notes.

Sometimes, the difficult questions demand the most attention.

Gov. Brad Little seemed to recognize that. In his response to the OPE report, he noted his concerns about the spiraling cost of the Advanced Opportunities program. In 2016, the state spent $4.6 million on the program. In 2021, the Legislature boosted its budget to $29.5 million — an attempt, Little said, to completely cover the program’s costs without making a last-minute raid on budget reserves.

While Little struck a cautious tone, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra went noncommittal. Many of the report’s findings, she said, “are best addressed by the Office of the State Board of Education.”

Yet Ybarra has not been shy about touting the growth of these rapidly growing programs, particularly Advanced Opportunities, and she hasn’t been alone. Supporters have touted participation as a measure of success. They haven’t talked as much about the outcomes — what young adults actually wind up doing after high school.

OPE researchers couldn’t really answer the question.

But their one-year snapshot is a start. It could reframe the way policymakers measure the success of these programs. And that would be a good thing for students and taxpayers alike.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday. 

More reading: In 2018, Idaho Education News took an in-depth look at the state’s efforts to encourage high school graduates to continue their education — including the Advanced Opportunities program and the Opportunity Scholarship. Click here for the story.



Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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