The State Board of Education eight years ago set an ambitious goal of having 60 percent of Idaho’s 25-34-year-olds holding a postsecondary credential by the year 2020.
Unfortunately, the state has made little progress toward that goal and earlier this year the State Board changed the goal to 2025. Now many people wonder whether the State Board’s vision of a more educated citizenry is even attainable.
Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert recently published an excellent multi-part series on the challenges we’ve faced hitting the 60 percent goal. After months of reporting, he drew this insightful conclusion: “This is no eight-year job. It’s a generational challenge. Student by student. Household by household.”
Richert identified three root causes preventing us from attaining the goal — economics, geography and culture. I’d like to take each of these challenges, explain why they are blocking our progress and suggest some solutions toward overcoming them.
First, the biggest challenge – culture.
Idaho does not have a postsecondary-going culture. This is rooted in our state’s history. For the last century an Idahoan could graduate from high school, or not, and get a good family-sustaining wage in the mines, forests, farms or manufacturing plants.
As one teacher told Richert: “You’re dealing with a state where the vast majority of people have been successful without a college degree.”
We know from research that 70 percent of high school graduates say their families are the primary influencer on whether they go on to postsecondary. Unfortunately, the message too many Idaho parents deliver is this: You don’t have to go on to get a job. Besides, postsecondary is too expensive. Don’t go into debt. And, the often unspoken, but implied message: I don’t want you to move away from home. You might never come back.
But parents miss that the world has changed since they entered the workforce. Between 60-70 percent of jobs now require some postsecondary credential. Making matters worse, the World Economic Forum predicts that 50 percent of existing jobs will be eliminated over the next several years because of robotics, artificial intelligence and automation.
We are already experiencing the impact of this technological change in Idaho, even among our iconic industries like food processing. Sure, new jobs will be created by this technology, but they will all require more education and skills than the jobs being eliminated.
Changing our culture will not be easy. But changing it we must.
This change must start with parents. They must help their children understand that they need postsecondary educational skills if they want to have a livable salary and good quality of life. From the beginning of their children’s education parents must encourage them to succeed academically and expect them to go on to postsecondary to get these skills.
Of course, educators play a key role because they can have a huge positive influence on students – nurturing their academic success and helping them find a pathway forward that meets their talents and passions.
Employers can play a critical role by helping their employees, many of whom are parents, understand the necessity of postsecondary education for their children. They can hold “lunch and learn” sessions where parents hear about how to help their children succeed academically and how they can prepare financially for their kids’ education.
Employers can also encourage parents to become full partners in their children’s education by giving them time off to volunteer in the schools and perhaps even sponsor early learning centers near their offices.
In short, it will take everyone to change the culture around education in Idaho.
Second, the problem rooted in economics.
This problem is magnified in Idaho where nearly half of all students are low-income and in some school districts more than two-thirds are.
There is a direct link between poverty and low student achievement – a phenomenon known as the “achievement gap.” Whether it’s reading, math, or SAT scores this gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students shows up.
The gap first appears when students enter kindergarten. Fifty-five percent of all incoming kindergarten students last fall were not prepared to learn how to read and the percentage was even higher among low-income students.
At the end of the education continuum, as Richert noted, this gap continues to show up. The postsecondary go-on rate among economically advantaged students is 50 percent, while the rate for low-income students is 39 percent.
The gap is also reflected in ethnicity. Thirty percent of white students have grade point averages of 3.5, while only 15 percent of Hispanic and Native American students have grades in that range. Only 13 percent of Hispanic adults have a postsecondary credential – last in the United States.
Our state must have a strategy to attack the achievement gap because we can’t attain the 60 percent goal without low-income students succeeding. We need to adopt proven and effective programs like AVID which helps all students excel.
Among the AVID students in the six Treasure Valley school districts that have the program the go-one rate is 73 percent – a whopping 25 percent increase over the state’s average.
Once we get more students to go on, our postsecondary institutions must do a better job holding onto them and getting them to graduate.
The affordability of postsecondary plays another critical role in us not moving the dial on the 60 percent goal. One reason is that Idaho has one of the lowest per capita wages in the country. Many parents and students cannot afford the tuition and fees.
That’s not the way it was a generation ago when the state picked up the lion’s share of a postsecondary education. This year, Richert reported, the state will pay $296 million for colleges and universities and students and families will pick up $265 million.
Over 10 years, general fund spending for postsecondary has increased 12 percent compared to tuition and fees that have gone up 155 percent.
Given this shift in the cost of education, we should not wonder why so many students carry debt or why parents discourage their children from going on.
As a state, we must make postsecondary more affordable. We can do that by increasing funding for the Opportunity Scholarship, by funding needs-based scholarships and by fully funding scholarships to help working adults with some college, but no degree to go back and finish.
The State of Tennessee has done these three things – even promising free community college or technical school tuition for every high school graduate. It has also offered free tuition to working adults who want to return and finish a degree. Thousands of Tennesseans have signed up for that opportunity.
Last spring, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam announced that his state will hit its version of the 60 percent goal – “Drive to 55” – by 2023, two years early. Haslam and his Republican Legislature show this can be achieved.
Policymakers must start looking at education generally, and postsecondary specifically, the same way companies look at their research and development – as the life blood of our state’s future. For every dollar we invest in education, we will reap many times more in personal and business prosperity.
Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University, says that Idaho could increase its gross state product by 236 percent if we could raise our workers’ educational attainment to the same level as Minnesota’s 54 percent. Education, he said, will eventually pay for itself.
Lastly, let’s look at the problem rooted in geography.
Idaho is a large state, with a sparse population divided by rugged mountain ranges, deep river canyons and miles of empty sagebrush plains. We have education “deserts” in many low-populated regions where obtaining a postsecondary credential is nearly impossible.
More than 50 percent of the citizens eligible for postsecondary live more than 50 miles from any of our eight institutions of higher education, according to Debbie Critchfield of the State Board of Education. Many of these citizens simply cannot move to Boise, Moscow, Pocatello, Lewiston or to one of our community college campuses to receive an education.
We must “shrink” our state through distance learning to make postsecondary more accessible.
To achieve this, we will have to extend broadband to every community and create “education hubs.” These can include community libraries and the University of Idaho’s extension offices which are in virtually every county of the state, many in our most rural areas. The postsecondary institutions will have to contribute by beefing up their on-line course offerings and even change schedules to accommodate these non-traditional learners.
One can easily get discouraged that we will never achieve the 60 percent goal. But other states, including Tennessee, Washington and Colorado, show that we can come very close to 60 percent and eventually achieve it.
Whether we attain the 60 percent or not, employers still need six out of 10 workers to hold a postsecondary credential. Without this workforce, our businesses will have difficulty growing and it will be harder to attract new companies that pay good wages. We could even lose some of our great companies to other states where they have the skilled workers they need.
If we achieve the 60 percent goal, everyone benefits: students are prepared for meaningful careers, businesses have a skilled workforce; the state has greater financial capacity and fewer program costs; and society reaps the benefits of an educated, healthy and engaged citizenry.
But it will take bold leadership, further investment, wise choices and laser-like focus.
Written by Rod Gramer, president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education.