Writings and observations

Front burner

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Education was the centerpiece of Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s state of the state address last week, and that unexpectedly included an element little-heard from in Idaho SOS speeches for a generation: Higher education.

Higher education has been on state policymakers’ back burner for a long time. Up to this year, it has gotten only peripheral mention in Otter’s state of the states; the biggest references have been to his support for local creation of the College of Western Idaho). But by the time Otter took office that had been the norm. Governors Dirk Kempthorne and Phil Batt did much the same.

In 2015, the higher ed reference consisted mostly of a passing reference to “more pronounced, targeted and sustainable investments in such programs as the computer science initiative at Boise State University, an employee readiness initiative at the University of Idaho, career path internships at Idaho State University, and the Complete College Idaho program throughout our higher education system.”

In Otter’s first state of the state he remarked, “ I am recommending that we neither significantly expand
existing programs nor add any major new initiatives would require a continuing revenue flow” – and that certainly seemed to apply to higher education. (His major reference to colleges and universities then was, “Speaking of our universities – how about those Broncos!”)

Last week’s speech was vastly different. To begin, he proposed a good deal of additional funding, a 9.6 percent increase for community college and 8.8 percent for the four-year institutions.

He spoke at some length again about the College of Western Idaho, reasonably since it’s been growing extremely rapidly. He also got the point behind that growth: “That speaks to a huge pent-up demand for the kind of lower-cost, relevant and responsive education and training programs that have been created at CWI.”

But he also delved into activities at other colleges and universities: “Besides additional funding for our college completion and high-demand academic and professional-technical programs, I recommend expanding Boise State University’s materials science program, the University of Idaho’s ‘Go On’ initiative to increase enrollment, and Idaho State University’s health science programs.”

These are major efforts at these institutions, not the small or peripheral programs so often mentioned,

Higher education has been taking a hit in recent years in many states and certainly in Idaho. That is a central, and not often enough mentioned, reason behind the explosion in college tuition and fees.

But Otter had something to suggest about that too. He proposed a “tuition lock” to hold costs steady through the fours years of a standard academic run through the major institutions. He suggested a $5 million increase in the Opportunity Scholarship, which likely will have only modest overall effect.

But then he proposed something new: “that another $5 million be allocated for the new “Completion Scholarship.” It’s designed to encourage Idaho citizens who have some post-secondary education to return to the classroom and finish up. It will provide a real benefit for financially strapped adults who are trying to upgrade their job skills.”

Higher education has been waiting a long time in Idaho for a chance to catch up. Maybe, just possibly, this is the legislative session when it happens. We’ll begin to know as lawmakers weigh in.

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