Analysis: The day the 60 percent goal almost died

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next year, Idaho Education News will provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of the challenges facing higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s our latest installment in this project.)

After wrestling the “60 percent goal” for a decade, the State Board of Education wrestled Wednesday with ditching it.

For now, board members kept the ballyhooed yet elusive postsecondary education goal in the State Board’s strategic plan. But they aren’t wild about it.

“It’s been a joke in many ways,” board member Emma Atchley said Wednesday.

Just four years ago, Atchley told lawmakers that the 60 percent goal was not “just a trite campaign slogan,” but an essential target for the state’s economy and for the state’s young adults. Atchley was outnumbered Wednesday, as the board voted 6-2 to leave the 60 percent goal intact. But times and sentiments have changed.

Some State Board members are over the 60 percent goal, because they think they have no control over it. But it’s been a long time getting to this point.  Since 2010, Idaho leaders have said they want 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds to hold a college degree or a professional certificate. The mission is to train and retain a young and skilled work force.

But instead of measuring what the colleges and universities actually do — such as awarding degrees — a 60 percent threshold only measures demographics, board member Linda Clark said Wednesday. “It depends on who comes into the state, who goes out of the state, what degrees they have, what certificates they have.”

That’s a fair point. But board member Andrew Scoggin pushed back against Clark’s suggestion that the board has no control over the 60 percent goal. Scoggin noted that, after all, the State Board has four four-year schools and four two-year colleges under its jurisdiction.

Now, let’s run the numbers.

In 2019, 44 percent of Idaho’s young adults held a college degree or professional certificate. That represents progress, after Idaho had been stuck at 42 percent for four successive years. When Idaho adopted this postsecondary completion goal in 2010, the state was sitting at a 37 percent rate.

It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say that Idaho has made no progress.

But a little healthy skepticism is in order. Instead of moving the goalpost, is the State Board just ripping the goalpost right out of the turf?

On Wednesday, Atchley sounded tired of being bludgeoned over Idaho’s failure to approach the 60 percent goal. Other board members have made similar statements in the past. And as she sat in on Wednesday’s virtual board meeting, Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton said the state’s “north star” education goal is oftentimes problematic.

“The lived reality of that, for us on our campuses, is that it’s often used as a P.R. punishment for what we are not able to accomplish,” Pemberton said.

No, the 60 percent goal isn’t easy. It hasn’t been easy anywhere.

The Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation has made a national 60 percent completion goal a priority, tracking mixed results at the state level. Unlike Idaho, Lumina tracks postsecondary completion for all adults, aged 25 to 64, but the numbers are still worth noting. In 2018, 51 percent of the nation’s adults held a degree or certificate. Only the District of Columbia and Massachusetts cleared the 60 percent threshold. Only five states ranked lower than Idaho.

The cold truth is that it takes years and money for education policy to affect a postsecondary completion number. Idaho poured at least $133 million into programs to support the 60 percent goal, according to a 2018 Idaho Education News analysis. The spending hasn’t slowed since then. This year, Idaho is spending $20 million on an advanced opportunities program to cover college-level dual-credit classes, and $19.7 million on the college Opportunity Scholarship.

When they put millions of dollars into dual-credit classes for high school students or scholarships for college students, Idaho’s leaders are hoping those investments pay off years down the road, when today’s students are tomorrow’s employees. That’s the hope, anyway. And as Clark accurately points out, it’s not a sure thing.

Gov. Brad Little, and his State Board appointees, have been subtly distancing themselves from the 60 percent goal for easily a year. What happened Wednesday, in a 20-minute stretch of a 4 1/2-hour meeting, was well foreshadowed. But the board held an up-or-down vote on deleting something that has been, for a decade, Idaho’s centerpiece education goal.

That’s still striking.

As is the fact that the board kept the 60 percent goal intact for now, but only while choosing a new and undetermined metric to replace it.

Before voting to give the 60 percent campaign a reprieve, board member David Hill summed up the reality of the goal succinctly. “It frankly has a life of its own at this point.”

It sure does.

That’s exactly what happens when the state’s political, education and business leaders coalesce behind one goal, and spend years and millions of taxpayer dollars trying to rally people behind it.

“I didn’t say this is mild, timid, weak and modest goal. This is a big hairy audacious goal.”

So said Little, then Idaho’s lieutenant governor, during a 2016 legislative hearing.

Little’s newest State Board members didn’t choose this goal, and nor did recently hired college and university presidents such as Pemberton. But they inherited it, and the scrutiny that comes with it.

And that scrutiny comes because the state is facing two serious and interconnected challenges: convincing high school graduates to continue their education, and aligning young workers’ skills to the labor market.

Changing the goalpost doesn’t change that reality.

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

More in-depth higher education coverage

Aug. 6: A pandemic makes old problems worse for Idaho higher education

Aug. 12: Idaho campuses prepare to reopen, but will students show up?

Aug. 24: Across the state, campuses open for an uncertain new year

Sept. 24: The feds’ coronavirus aid fills some gaps, but only some

Oct. 8: Boise State faces a financial reckoning

Nov. 3: New Boise State program seeks to guide students through gap year

Nov. 12: In a pandemic, colleges struggle even more to attract Idaho graduates

Dec. 3: One semester down, a tougher semester ahead

Jan. 5: Instead of going on, Idaho high school graduates stayed home

Jan. 28: Previewing Idaho’s next higher education budget battle

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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