Changing Idaho’s college-going culture

Every fall Idaho high school seniors assess their post-graduation options. Unfortunately, too many qualified students are unsure of the importance of postsecondary education, or how to go to college. Many students – about 50 percent – will not pursue any postsecondary education. That is a tragedy for students as individuals, and a real problem for our great state.

With the implementation of a new, streamlined admissions process, the state of Idaho and its higher education institutions have begun to make that decision point easier.

For many students, the process of applying for college – that critical first step on the road to a great future – is an obstacle. I tested out my own institution’s application process. It is, in a word, daunting. In a state with the nation’s only unified K-20 system, with effectively one board governing secondary and postsecondary education, we are in a unique position to make fast, meaningful changes.

The State Board of Education has been able to quickly move on a recommendation by the President’s Council, a working group of Idaho’s presidents of public higher education institutions, to put together an initiative that simplifies the admission process to our public colleges and universities. The first step in that process will see the State Board of Education send a letter to public school students – and to their parents – explaining which institutions they have already been admitted to, based on their high school achievement. For qualified students that means no more guesswork, no more apprehension, no more excuses not to explore all their opportunities.

To follow up on the state’s letter, on Tuesday, Nov. 10, UI will host “Enroll Idaho” events in counties across Idaho. These informational sessions, intended for students receiving admittance letters and their families, will provide information about the application process and next steps. Importantly, while we will absolutely share information about the excellent opportunities available at UI, we’ve also invited other institutions to participate. We want to collaborate with our sister institutions, not compete, as we build a better Idaho, one student at a time.

I have also asked our James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research to study the transition from K-12 to postsecondary education. Learning more about the choices students make will help all of us – higher education, the state board, school districts, the legislature and more – design policies and practices that more effectively promote postsecondary participation. Expect that vital “Idaho at a Glance” report in January 2016. Additionally, in the spring we’ll follow up our efforts with FAFSA and financial aid workshops at our statewide extension centers and at recruitment events.

The University of Idaho is taking a leadership role in reshaping the college-going culture in Idaho, a charge that aligns with our land-grant mission to serve the people of Idaho. We know that as many as 5,000 qualified students are missing an absolutely vital opportunity each year. College education is not for everybody, but we are certainly not reaching enough students with the message of why it is valuable, and how it can be attained.

Those 5,000 young men and women can and should have an experience that changes their lives. Increased personal satisfaction, financial security and civic participation are well-documented outcomes associated with a college degree. Furthermore, for our state to live up to its promise in an increasingly knowledge-based, global economy, we must make those outcomes a reality.

I am pleased so many stakeholders have come together to start changing the culture. There are real hurdles on the way to a postsecondary education, but students need not trip on the first one. Let’s have our high school seniors asking not “Should I go to college?” but “Where should I go to college?”

Chuck Staben is the president at the University of Idaho.