Greatest Mind.

10.05.2009

Here is a letter that was in the Times News yesterday. It mentions my dad, and I am so proud of him that I wanted to share it with everyone. I am so lucky to have a dad who is passionate about what he does, people can tell he cares, and they support him in his choices.

The clock's ticking for Idaho higher education

Posted: Sunday, October 4, 2009 1:00 am

It's kind of hard to tell amid all the falling plaster and cracking foundations of Idaho higher education, but there is a plan in the works to make it survive - and thrive. Some of the best minds in Idaho - including Twin Falls' Ken Edmunds, a member of the State Board of Education - have a vision for a higher-ed system that is nimble, accessible, affordable and more effective than the one we have today.

Question is, how much of that system will be left by the time the reformers get a chance to reform it?

Sept. 25 was a brutal day for higher ed statewide. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter announced 6 percent mid-year budget cuts for universities, colleges and community colleges and gave the institutions just three weeks to get them done.

That's $5 million out the door at the University of Idaho, $4.7 million at Boise State University and $4 million at Idaho State University. Six percent of the College of Southern Idaho's state appropriation works out to a cut of $705,700, but careful management and use of reserves will temper the pain.

State spending on higher ed next year will be less than this year, which will trigger tuition and fee increases that will price out many students. Annual room, board, tuition and supplies at the University of Idaho now top $13,000; it's $11,000 at BSU and Idaho State. Sixty-two percent of ISU undergraduates now receive financial aid, 62 percent at BSU and 58 percent in Moscow.

Cost matters in Idaho because half of the freshmen in the state's colleges and universities don't stick around to become sophomores. Just 22.5 percent of Idahoans 25 and older hold bachelor's degrees; among residents between 18 and 24, only 31 percent are in college.

Certainly, money isn't the only reason. This is an agricultural state with a long tradition of sending high school graduates directly into the workforce. But the bottom line is that our higher ed system isn't serving enough Idahoans well enough to make the state competitive in a global economy.

So college has to count, Edmunds and others believe, in real-world earnings potential. They envision using dual-credit programs - high school students earning college credit - and the newly minted Idaho Education Network to get students invested in Idaho higher education before they leave Idaho high schools. They also champion the community colleges' role as gateways to cost-effective education.

(CSI - which actually enrolls more lower-division academic students than either ISU or the U of I - remains a bargain at about $2,300 in tuition and fees per year.)

The four-year schools, the reformers believe, must prove they're relevant in specific ways because that's the only way to justify all that expensive bricks-and-mortar and all those highly paid academics in Boise, Pocatello, Moscow and Lewiston.

Programs should be located where the needs are greatest. Half of Idaho attorneys, for example, work in Ada and Canyon counties, but the state's law school is 220 miles away, in Moscow.

And colleges must decide what they want to be. Is it realistic, for example, for ISU to continue to function as an advanced research institution and what amounts to a community college?

Reform has been tried before in Idaho higher education, and has run into the brick wall of regional politics - as the U of I's attempt to shutter ag research facilities in Parma, Sandpoint and Tetonia this year illustrated so vividly. Worse, the rivalries tend to be zero-sum - any significant higher ed investment in, say, Boise is resented by citizens of eastern and northern Idaho and the legislators who represent them.

That's a recipe for decline. In the long run, Idaho probably can't afford the higher ed system as it exists today.

So higher ed reform in Idaho isn't just a political and economic imperative, but an existential one. How long will Idahoans be willing to export their best-and-brightest high school graduates? How can the state attract the good jobs of the future with the educational system of the past?

And at what point is pretty good just not good enough?

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