The criticism was on target this spring when word got out that trustees for the College of Western Idaho had bought a large chunk of land near downtown Boise (largely an empty lot at present) with the idea of expanding operations on to it. The critics pointed out that no proper appraisal of the land’s value was done, and the college seems to have greatly overpaid for it.
The board’s chair, Mary Niland, argued afterward that the college didn’t overpay but, “If I had it to do all over again, I would have looked at the tax assessment and would have asked for the appraisal,” the Idaho Statesman quoted her as saying. “All I can tell you is we didn’t think about it. It was a mistake, and we are accountable for that.”
The lack of appraisal was a legitimate complaint, one the institution apparently will have a chance to correct next time around. That may be near-term, since last week came reports the college is planning to buy 32.5 acres north of its campus at Nampa, for $815,000. The deal was supposed to be done by early July.
Prices and process aside, these two land purchases – and the developments apparently slated to follow – suggest something significant that hasn’t gotten a tremendous amount of attention yet: The explosive growth of the College of Western Idaho.
For many years, the Boise metro area was either the largest or one of the largest metro areas in the nation without a general-purpose community college. That absence wasn’t discussed a whole lot, and for a long time there was little push to create one. That’s bearing in mind that what’s now Boise State University effective was a community college for many years before it became a university in 1974. Not for another 30 years would a serious effort (based partly around a push by BSU President Robert Kustra) be made to set up a new community college in Idaho’s population center.
In 2007 voters in Ada and Canyon counties passed a ballot measure setting up a community college district in the area. Probably underestimating the effort involved in establishing a new college, the plan was made to open it just two years later. The first CWI president who oversaw that effort, Dennis Griffin, wrote about it in a book called From Scratch, who told about just how difficult it was to get it up and running in time. Disclosure: I published that book through Ridenbaugh Press.
On opening, the college was expected to enroll 1,700 students. It got 1,208, which led to the inevitable headlines about how it missed its target.
A few years after that, while talking to Griffin (he had retired as president by then), he threw out the idea that CWI might one day have as many as 50,000 students. A third person drinking coffee with us laughed and said he doubted it. I said that I didn’t.
I’ll hold to that view. In the fall of 2013, CWI's enrollment was 19,861 with 9,204 credit students and 10,657 students taking non-credit courses.
The fall 2014 enrollment rose to 20,697, almost evenly divided between credit and non-credit students, about two-thirds part-time. It awarded 1,260 degrees.
These are large and fast-growing numbers and, it turns out, indicative of how much Boise really did need a community college. An enrollment of 50,000 doesn’t seem so far off for one day, considering the rate of growth.
And while the trustees should be adhering to take care and watch the dollars when they buy land and construct buildings, it demonstrates clearing the need to keep doing those things.