In-depth: After a year of uncertainties, the summer of Launch begins

Mataio Jenkins, a Kuna High School senior, discusses his decision to pursue an Idaho Launch grant during a January news conference at the Statehouse. (Darren Svan/Idaho EdNews)

Lawmakers spent much of the 2024 session debating Idaho Launch. Across town, at Boise’s Frank Church High School, many students had their minds made up.

They were eager to apply for a share of the money. Last fall, when students first heard about the chance to get $8,000 to continue their education, many would “literally perk up,” said Katie Omercevic, a counselor at the alternative high school.

And they’ve followed up. A year ago, barely a quarter of Frank Church’s seniors went on to college; this year, 84% of students applied to college, and 60% plan to enroll, Omercevic said recently.

“I think a lot of kids feel like college is a luxury,” she said. “I think this scholarship makes it easier for them to follow their dreams and do what they actually want to do.”

Launch has generated excitement. But it has also spawned confusion.

Counselors have had to navigate the class of 2024 through a brand-new $70.8 million program — while having to teach themselves exactly how it will work. “Talk about building the plane while you’re flying it, it’s been that kind of year,” said Donna Decker, a counselor at Boise’s Timberline High School.

At the Statehouse, even Launch’s staunch supporters aren’t exactly sure how the program will work. Will it encourage a new wave of high school graduates to continue their education and get valuable job skills? Will the program help employers find young workers ready to jump into in-demand careers? And when Launch graduates get their state-funded training, will they ply their newly acquired skills in Idaho or head elsewhere?

It will take years before anyone has the answers.

After graduation, what’s happening now?

Now that the blur of senior year has come and gone, the Launch money will soon become tangible.

For months, the state has offered “contingent” Launch awards to seniors — provided they graduate, and complete a state-mandated career pathway plan.

The numbers are constantly changing — as students across the state change their post-high school plans — but 8,071 seniors had accepted a contingent award as of June 1.

Wendi Secrist, executive director, Workforce Development Council

The state still has money to move out the door, and that’s what it’s doing this week. The Workforce Development Council is making another round of awards, executive director Wendi Secrist said Monday. That should bring the total number of Launch awards to about 9,250.

In other words, nearly half of the state’s 21,000 seniors are going to leave high school with a diploma and a share of the Launch money.

But a big piece of this year’s Launch story has been a tale of heavy demand — one that surprised even the program’s most ardent advocates.

In all, 13,011 students completed Launch applications by the state’s April 15 deadline, Secrist told the Legislature’s Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee last week.

For students on the waiting list, all is not lost. The state expects to have some money to redistribute. “Summer melt” is always a constant, as some seniors decide against college at the last minute. Other students may decide to go to school outside of Idaho, or they might pursue studies that fall outside the state’s controversial list of Launch-appropriate in-demand careers.

When this first group of Launch recipients finally gets sorted out, it will be closely scrutinized. This class will give Idaho’s education and political leaders a first chance to see how — or whether — Launch is making a difference.

What we know now — and what we don’t know yet

Secrist and the Workforce Development Council is more than a year into the rollout on Launch, created by the 2023 Legislature. And more than a year in, she readily admits that there is still a lot to learn.

“One of the challenges with the program is we have absolutely no historical information,” she said this week.

Several snapshots suggest that Launch is connecting with a new group of students:

  • The 8,071 contingent awards are almost evenly split along gender lines. This is a sign that Launch could be narrowing a stubborn gender gap by persuading more male graduates to continue their studies, rather than going straight into the workforce.
  • Launch applicants have a mean GPA of 2.73, as opposed to an overall mean of 2.9. And the Launch applicant GPA skews lower for boys, another sign that Launch could be reaching students who wouldn’t otherwise consider staying in school.
  • Hispanic students account for 19% of Launch applicants. That’s well in line with Idaho demographics, since about 18% of Idaho’s K-12 students are Hispanic.

But at the same time, it’s not clear whether Launch is really driving students toward new postsecondary paths.

Based on April numbers, more than 90% of students accepting a Launch offer said they plan to attend a two- or four-year college — even though they could use Launch for career-technical training or an apprenticeship.

In all, 5,857 graduating seniors who have accepted an Idaho Launch grant say they will attend a two- or four-year college in Idaho. Here’s how the numbers break down:

  • Boise State University: 1,351
  • Idaho State University: 1,136
  • College of Western Idaho: 943
  • University of Idaho: 851
  • College of Southern Idaho: 665
  • North Idaho College: 327
  • College of Eastern Idaho: 294
  • Lewis-Clark State College: 290

The top five postsecondary programs for Launch applicants include college-level studies in nursing, engineering or education. Career-technical fields like welding and auto repair rank lower on the list.

The top 12 postsecondary programs for Idaho Launch scholarship applicants, for students who had received Launch offers by April:

  • Nursing: 827
  • Business administration/management/commerce: 708
  • Engineering: 683
  • Teaching: 631
  • Health care technician: 533
  • Information technology: 392
  • Automotive technician: 378
  • Welding: 337
  • Cosmetology: 335
  • Construction trades: 290
  • Engineering technician: 139
  • Animal sciences, general: 130

It’s too early to say whether Launch will lead to an enrollment spike on college and university campuses this fall — or whether students will be turned away from nursing classes that have strict registration caps. It could be that more students will show up on campus this fall. Or it could be that more students simply applied for college earlier, filling out college and Launch applications at the same time, said Sherawn Reberry, the Workforce Development Council’s Launch program manager.

Secrist believes, in time, that more Launch students will use the money to pursue career-technical training — the promise that many lawmakers embraced when they approved the program a year ago. She says Idaho is still having to break a mindset — one instilled for years into this year’s high school graduates — that equates postsecondary education with college.

“We’ve expanded the definition of college. And I think that’s what is the most important thing.”

‘It was almost the perfect storm this year’

For school counselors, managing the first year of Launch was an exercise in managing expectations — and sorting out a new set of rules and requirements.

The promise of an $8,000 award — covering up to 80% of a student’s postsecondary expenses — was enough to get students’ attention, said Rae Peppley, a college and career counselor at West Ada’s Owyhee High School. But at the same time, Peppley didn’t want to see her students picking programs that weren’t right for them simply because they were chasing the Launch money.

“We were pretty authentic with our students,” she said.

Counselors also had to work through the confusion and the logistical unknowns that came with the startup program.

At the outset, even some counselors said they were confused about whether students could automatically use Launch money to go to community college. (They can’t; their studies have to be aligned with the state’s list of 242 in-demand careers.)

Keeping students within the in-demand career parameters proved to be another challenge. At Frank Church, one of Omercevic’s students went back and forth so many times on her plans that she wound up losing her contingent offer.

For Monica Simental, a college and career adviser at Nampa High School, the prospect of a “clawback” was and is a big question. Could her students be forced to pay back their Launch dollars, and what would trigger that? (Several factors can trigger a “clawback,” including poor academic performance or dropping out of college or training to take an unrelated job.)

And to further complicate matters, students and parents had to navigate not just a new state program but a famously flawed rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid. (Students don’t need to fill out a FAFSA to qualify for Launch, but if they want to augment their Launch money with aid for housing they need to complete the form.) “It was almost the perfect storm this year with FAFSA,” said Tammy Schneider, a counselor at West Ada’s Renaissance High School.

After the double whammy of the Launch rollout and the FAFSA reboot  — “I think I’ve been worried the whole time, the whole school year,” Simental said in April — she has seen both the positives and negatives of Launch. On the one hand, students pursuing a career in auto repair can use Launch to attend community college and federal aid to pay for living in a dorm. On the other hand, she struggled to help one of her students who was hoping to use Launch to pursue a four-year degree in dermatology.

“It is a big help for some students,” she said. “Unfortunately, not for all students.”

‘We had to be really honest about the uncertainty of funds’

Meanwhile, over the course of three months, another form of uncertainty swirled around Launch. For much of the 2024 session, it was unclear whether lawmakers would actually fund a program they had created in 2023.

Year Two of the Launch debate was much like Year One. Supporters said the program would help thousands of young adults chart a sustainable career path; critics said the program amounted to a handout to students and a subsidy to big business. The $70.8 million budget passed — despite the deep ideological divisions in the Legislature and despite vocal opposition from the Legislature’s most powerful Launch critic, House Speaker Mike Moyle. Without the budget bill, the 9,250 Launch awards would have perished.

“We had to be really honest about the uncertainty of funds,” said Nichole Deakins, a counselor for West Ada’s alternative high schools, Central Academy, Eagle Academy and Meridian Academy.

The council tried to be upfront with school counselors about the funding questions, Secrist said. Meanwhile, at the Statehouse, the council tried to bolster support for Launch. The ideological opponents didn’t budge, but some lawmakers felt better about the mechanics of the fledgling program.

“I think that there were folks who had some significant questions,” Secrist said. “Once they saw how we were putting the framework together … they liked the direction that we were heading with it.”

Launch is not out of political danger. The GOP’s hardline faction gained several House and Senate seats in May, which could bolster resistance to the program. In addition, two prominent Launch supporters lost in the Republican primary: Rep. Megan Blanksma, the sponsor of the original Launch bill in 2023; and House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie Yamamoto.

Secrist isn’t sure what to expect in 2025, and whether lawmakers will try to tweak the program further.

In West Ada, Peppley sees Launch as a potential solution to a problem she has wrestled with for 20 years: Idaho’s chronically low postsecondary go-on rate. In 2023, only 43% of high school graduates continued their education in the fall. Affordability remains a driving issue, and Launch is a potential solution.

“The kids are saying, ‘If my parents can’t help me, I’m not going.’”

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.

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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