A troublesome narrative criticizes higher education

If this narrative takes hold, we risk endangering the future economic prosperity and quality of life in our great state.

A troublesome narrative has emerged in our state that is increasingly critical of postsecondary education. If this narrative takes hold, we risk endangering the future economic prosperity and quality of life in our great state.

This threat is especially dangerous if our young people buy into this narrative. After all, it’s their future success in school, work and life that is at stake.

Last week a letter emerged written by 28 legislators, eight of them from the House Education Committee, and three members of House leadership, critical of Boise State University’s diversity programs. Then a cartoon postcard hit lawmakers’ mailboxes depicting BSU’s new president, Marlene Tromp, as a clown and mocking members of the State Board of Education.

Here’s why this narrative is so troublesome: Idaho needs at least 60 percent of its 25-34-year-old workers to hold a postsecondary credential — a workforce-ready certificate, a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Unfortunately, only 42 percent of our workforce in Idaho holds one of these credentials – giving Idaho one of the least-educated workforces in the country.

If we don’t achieve the 60 percent goal, our existing businesses will have difficulty finding the educated workers they need to grow, it will be more difficult to attract new, well-paying jobs to our state and we even risk losing existing businesses to other states with a more educated workforce.

Simply put, we cannot build the workforce and bright future Idaho needs without a vibrant postsecondary system of education.

Yet the critics mock our education institutions while we struggle to get more of our high school students to go on to postsecondary. In fact, that struggle is not getting any easier as our go-on rate direct out of high school dropped to 45 percent in 2018 after plateauing at 48 percent for several years.

Here’s another thing troubling about the recent narrative regarding BSU’s diversity efforts. We won’t build the workforce we need if we don’t get more economically disadvantaged, Hispanic and American Indian students to go on to postsecondary.

That’s because these low income and minority students are the fastest-growing population in Idaho’s schools. In southern Idaho especially many school districts are majority-minority and others are headed that way.

If these students go on, they are generally first-generation college students. They need some of those extra services that BSU was criticized for providing to ensure that they successfully navigate the system and graduate with a degree that leads to a good career. Leading universities across the country are doing the same to ensure first-generation students graduate.

Critics say Idaho’s postsecondary institutions are spending too much and putting too much of the financial burden on students. What they don’t tell you is that state support for postsecondary as a percentage of the overall cost has been dropping for decades.

In 1980, the State of Idaho picked up 88.1 percent of higher education’s cost, while families picked up 7.2 percent.  In fiscal year 2020, the state will be picking up 50.6 percent of the support for higher education while students and families will be picking up 46.5 percent.

Even the federal government is supporting our institutions of higher learning more than the state is with its general funds. In 2019, the institutions received $397 million in federal grants, contracts and student financial aid compared to the $370 million the state contributed.

What the critics also don’t tell you is how much gross state product our colleges and universities generate for the state. In 2013-2014, the postsecondary institutions generated $4.1 billion – that’s right, billion – in gross state product, equal to 7 percent of the state’s total GSP.

What the critics also don’t tell you is that not only does the state get enriched by the work of our postsecondary institutions – so do the students. On average, a person with a postsecondary degree can expect to earn $1 million more over their lifetime than someone without a degree.

In fiscal year 2013-14, the cumulative financial contribution of former college students working in Idaho amounted to $3.1 billion of the state’s GSP.

By the way, people with postsecondary education are also more likely to save taxpayers money over their lifetime – savings in health care, social services and criminal justice – than citizens with less education. They are also more likely to vote, volunteer in their community and donate to charity.

Another thing the critics of the postsecondary institutions don’t tell you is that they themselves are doing little to contribute to saving students money or strengthening our institutions so they can continue enriching Idaho.

Of the 28 legislators who sent the letter to President Tromp criticizing the school’s diversity programs, 16 voted against the general fund budget that supports our postsecondary institutions. And 27 of the 28 signers voted against funding the Opportunity Scholarship, which helps thousands of Idaho’s kids pay for college. This scholarship is the only state-funded scholarship these students have to make their version of the American Dream come true.

Does postsecondary education cost students too much? Yes. Can the institutions figure out a way to keep costs down? Yes. Does the state do enough to make postsecondary more affordable for our students. No.

Today’s lawmakers carry considerably less of the financial load compared to the generations of lawmakers before them. In terms of dollars, in 2019 they contribute even less than the federal government.

In short, they do comparatively little considering the economic return the state gets from having a more educated citizenry and world-class institutions that contribute billions of dollars to the state gross product.

The real danger here is that the people of Idaho will fall for these critics’ false narrative. If that becomes our fate, then the losers won’t be the critics, the losers will be the students, businesses, taxpayers and people of Idaho.

Written by Rod Gramer, President of Idaho Business for Education

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