Leadership is key to making higher ed more accessible and affordable

Recent testimony before the Legislature regarding the Governor’s Higher Education Task Force recommendations missed the mark and is misleading. So, it is important to set the record straight and explain why the Task Force recommendations are so important to Idaho’s future.

At the heart of the issue is the need to have 60 percent of our workers hold a postsecondary credential, so they qualify for one of the thousands of jobs employers need to fill.

Unfortunately, Idaho is facing a perilous economic future because only 42 percent of our workers hold such a credential. Without closing this gap, existing businesses will have trouble growing, we risk losing others, and it will be difficult to attract good jobs to our state.

Bob Lokken

After studying the problem, the Task Force concluded that there are two critical barriers to creating a more educated workforce – access and affordability. The Task Force, including all eight college presidents, voted unanimously for a series of recommendations to address these problems.

First, the Task Force recommended that the state create a single statewide digital campus where students across Idaho could obtain credits for a postsecondary degree. This digital campus would especially help low-income and rural students who can’t afford to attend one of our traditional bricks-and-mortar campuses.

The Task Force also recognized that we need increased scholarships so more students can afford to attend college, either at a traditional campus or at the digital one.

The Task Force realized that solving these issues would cost new money, so it studied how other states had found money to tackle these issues. There are dozens of education systems on the path to a shared services model. For example, Maine consolidated back-office operations like IT, human resources, and finances – and saved more than $80 million.

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After studying Maine, the taskforce agreed that Idaho could likely save millions by consolidating back-office operations. And, no, this is not, as previously published, about eliminating the person who empties the wastebaskets. This is about real savings reinvested in academics.

Boise State University President Bob Kustra, who was a member of the Task Force and voted in favor of all the Task Force recommendations, says, without any expert evidence to back up his claim, that the state may only save $6 million. But whether it’s $6 million or $40 million, everyone, even Dr. Kustra, agrees that consolidation can save money that Idaho can then reinvest in students. Now we just need an expert study to determine exactly how much we can save.

Leadership is another key to making higher education more accessible and affordable. Someone must develop and implement a detailed plan to consolidate back-office operations to realize the savings and then use that savings to create the statewide digital campus that lowers the cost of education. Recognizing this, the Task Force, including Dr. Kustra, voted unanimously to recommend a new leadership structure to accomplish this new work.

That’s why Gov. Otter recommended, and the State Board of Education supports, hiring an executive who has the skills to achieve the level of change-management required to find efficiencies and create a digital campus. That’s why presidents Chuck Staben of the University of Idaho and Art Vailas of Idaho State University last week both voiced support for the idea.

Some ask, “Why do we need a leader who can make the Task Force recommendations a reality?” Because it will take experience, specialized expertise and operational leadership to ensure that the consolidation doesn’t hamstring our universities and still gains the savings that we need. No matter how good the idea, it must be implemented effectively to make a positive difference.

In eight years, we have made little progress in achieving the goal of having 60 percent of our 25-34-year-olds holding a postsecondary credential. While some critics nitpick the task force recommendations and others fret over losing power, Idaho continues to drift toward an economic precipice.

Idaho’s students cannot wait another eight years to obtain the skills they need for a career. Idaho’s employers cannot wait for the educated workers they need. Idaho’s economic future can’t wait. The time is now to make postsecondary education accessible and affordable to all.

The Task Force and the State Board of Education have given legislators the blueprint for success. Now it’s time for them to act decisively for Idaho’s future.

(Bob Lokken was co-chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Higher Education and is Chair of Idaho Business for Education, a non-partisan group of nearly 200 Idaho business leaders.)

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