On supporting higher education

malloy CHUCK
MALLOY

 
In Idaho

I am a University of Idaho alum who enjoys following Boise State sports. My golf clubs have “Vandal” headcovers and occasionally I’ll wear a “Bronco” shirt on the course – just to mess with people’s minds and give myself a mental edge. Of course, when I hit a series of errant shots and missed putts, the edge is gone and I become this crazy old guy with a Bronco shirt and Vandal headcovers.

The point I try to make is there is no rivalry. The football rivalry was cooking pretty well for three decades, but ended when Boise State decided to go big time. So, let’s realize that Idaho needs both schools – the land grant university in Moscow and the urban-based university in Boise – to go anywhere with higher education. Idaho also needs strong systems at Idaho State and Lewis-Clark State College to provide higher education opportunities to Idahoans.

As Mike Rush, the executive director of the State Board of Education, tells me – and he’s absolutely correct – we need more opportunities for higher education, not fewer. A strong higher education system is crucial for pulling Idaho out of the dumps in terms of wages.

Now, if Rush can only convince the politicians. Higher education should be a bellwether issue in political campaigns, but it isn’t. Candidates for state offices will talk plenty about the public schools, because Idaho has a constitutional requirement to provide a public education for children. But there is no such requirement for higher education.

“That, combined with the fact that higher education has other sources of funding, has made higher education across the nation a tempting target for balancing the budget,” Rush said.

The decrease in state support for higher education has caused sharp increases in fee and tuition costs. And while higher education is still a bargain in Idaho, compared to other states, it has priced many Idahoans out of the market – to the detriment of the economy.

“We can’t keep going in this direction,” Rush said. “If we keep withdrawing support, our higher education system simply will not be able to deliver the punch that we need to drive our economy for the next 30 years.”

Rush says numerous studies about the relationship between post-secondary education and economic prosperity are clear. “You’ve got to get more people with post-secondary experience,” he said. “That may be a four-year degree, or that may be a two-year degree. Or, maybe it’s an industry certificate that proves additional and specific skills.”

The bottom line is more years of a post-secondary education equal higher salaries. The quality of a higher education system so often is a make-it, or break-it factor for providing businesses and industries that pay higher salaries. Boise State, for example, has upgraded its computer science offerings at the request of high-tech industries. The College of Southern Idaho played an instrumental role in providing a workforce for the Chobani Yogurt Factory in Twin Falls.

Community colleges are designed to provide a relatively quick source of training while higher education focuses more on the long-term needs. “I think higher education gets it, although it can always be better,” Rush said.

Working four years as communications adviser with Idaho House Republicans, I did not sense an appreciation of the value for higher education. Some of the questions I heard asked: Why do we need three universities and, especially, a four-year school in Lewiston? Why do we need four presidents and four layers of administration? Could the state save money by closing down one or two universities?

“I see no good argument that suggests we have too much capacity in higher education,” Rush said. “I think it’s clear we don’t have enough capacity.”
At 42 percent, Idaho is among the lowest in the nation as far as high school students going on to college. Rush would like to see the percentage closer to 60 percent to fit today’s needs. By 2018, the percentage needs to be 68 percent.

But the numbers won’t go up if costs for students continue to rise and state support continues to fall. And the state support will not increase significantly until the governor and Legislature make it a priority.

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