What is Idaho’s postsecondary story?

In state education circles, the annual release of IdahoED Trends is our moment to dive into the story of public education in Idaho. We count on reading pages of useful data on indicators of public-school student achievement: aggregate scores for reading, writing, and math, high school graduation rates, and the state’s “go on” rates.

As an education policy nerd, I look forward to IdahoEd Trends publication day.

Dr. Jean M. Henscheid

At the same time, I search in vain every year for several missing pages — the postsecondary story. In 2018, for example, page 36 should be followed by indicators that may explain why only 37 percent of Idaho’s 25- to 34-year-olds have earned a postsecondary credential. It can’t solely be what some believe is our state’s non-college-going culture. While no one is happy with the “go on” numbers, where are the data on the many students who enter postsecondary education but never finish? We know what happens to elementary students who aren’t reading at grade level, but what happens to the student who commits to an academic or technical program but disappears by the second month? What happens to the student who reports in seventh grade that they plan to earn a bachelor’s degree but leaves mid-way through community college? This year, IdahoEd Trends’ page 36 on “go on” numbers is followed by page 37’s disappointing postsecondary graduation rates. The throughputs that might explain these rates are missing – or the story was left at the printers.

I do not blame Idaho Ed News. The staff reports on what people care about and on what they believe the public can have a say in changing. As with IdahoED Trends, most public discussions about improving educational attainment levels skip from “go on” to postsecondary completion.

But overlooking the postsecondary story is the equivalent of the state saying successfully enrolling students in first grade is what it takes to graduate them from high school.

I am also not arguing that the postsecondary story is completely ignored. In Go-On Isn’t Enough; Idaho Also Needs a Stay-In Initiative, I note that individual colleges and universities, the State Board of Education and some professional organizations are working to impact the throughputs that might improve postsecondary attainment levels. These discussions are rarely the kind to capture the public’s imagination: common course numbering, co-requisite math, academic advising practices, articulation agreements, time-to-degree policies.

So, the postsecondary stories most likely to hit the press are of individual student triumphs and struggles and the barriers or supports they find along the way. Sometimes, though, these conversations can be bigger and livelier, and lead to real change. I witnessed this the past two summers at secondary-postsecondary summits on moving students from high school to and through college and career. These Idaho’s Future meetings, sponsored by the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research and the State Board of Education, involved educators from all eight public colleges and universities and educators from high schools of all sizes and regions of the state. Participants left having shared immediately actionable ideas for improving student success. These meetings were designed to pull open the college and university black box, constructively, collaboratively, and at a grass-roots level.

One finding from Idaho’s Future was that students fail in their transitions into and through postsecondary education for a host of reasons not related to finances. While money is often cited as the primary barrier to entering or completing a postsecondary program, participants agreed that other factors weigh even more heavily: students feeling they have been treated poorly or that the institution didn’t care about them, students not believing that what they were doing was “worth it” or for other personal reasons. Their insights mirror findings from three national studies that examined why students leave postsecondary education. In these studies, financial issues and poor grades are last on the list.

Out of public view, Idaho’s colleges and universities are working hard to help more students succeed. They typically have neither the time nor opportunity to make these efforts public, improve their work with input from fellow educators or other stakeholders, or collaborate on statewide solutions.

Our new governor has launched an Idaho’s Future initiative of his own, which will include a Children’s Cabinet. I agree with Marty Peterson’s Statesman guest opinion that postsecondary education should be given equivalent attention. It would be just what IdahoED Trends needs to tell the whole story.

Written by Dr. Jean M. Henscheid, a fellow with the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. She consults with institutions and government agencies on educational innovations with a primary focus on improving connections between secondary and postsecondary sectors.

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