Bob Kustra: Higher education is key to Idaho’s economic future

GUEST OPINION WORKFORCE IMPROVEMENT

January 30, 2014 

Idaho lawmakers received troubling news as they kicked off the 2014 legislative session: Idaho now ranks dead last among states in annual wages, per capita income and wage increases since 2007.

It was a reality check following the recession’s devastating effects on states such as Idaho, where traditional careers haven’t always been tied to education attainment and opportunities awaited those willing to work hard, even when they didn’t have any postsecondary education.

What accounts for Idaho’s poor showing? Lawmakers learned that half of all Idahoans earn less than $11.15 an hour. Fewer than 1 in 4 Idahoans older than 25 have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher — 39th among the states. We rank 42nd for master’s degree attainment. This is not unrelated to our economic woes.

As daunting as this challenge may appear — lifting our state’s workers out of last place — Idaho has the higher educational infrastructure that can propel us into the next economy. We may be closer to the solution than we realize.

The state Department of Labor’s “Hot Jobs” list shows 20 abundant and fast-growing careers that pay from $18.22 an hour for licensed practical and vocational nurses to $80.60 for family and general physicians. Half of these hot jobs are in health care. Five are in high technology.

At Boise State, we have created a slate of opportunities to let Idaho students take advantage of these growing careers, and we are producing more graduates each year with the skills these hot jobs require. In the past five years, we have increased our nursing bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates by more than 300 percent. We’ve doubled our graduates in biology, chemistry and premedical studies. We have boosted our mechanical engineering graduates by 50 percent. A new partnership with eight local software companies will soon double computer science graduates.

Idaho can count on workforce development successes at Idaho’s other universities and colleges as well. Yet, we simply do not have enough students leaving high school and seeking a college education.

Studies show that over a lifetime, college graduates earn $1.1 million more, on average, than high school graduates. In today’s rough economy, college graduates are proving to be far more recession-proof than others in the workforce. Since the start of the downturn in 2007, federal statistics show that employment for college grads has rebounded by 9 percent, while jobs for high school grads remain down by the same percentage.

We know that more and more jobs of the future will require some form of postsecondary education, and that is why the State Board of Education has challenged its public universities and colleges with an ambitious goal: ensuring that 60 percent of Idahoans between the ages of 25 and 34 have a degree or certificate by 2020.

At Boise State, we have transformed our campus life and more than doubled our postgraduate offerings in the past decade, despite lean state budgets. Our $77.7 million share of the state’s general fund last year was just $4 million more than what we were allotted in 2002, although our student body has grown by 25 percent since then. Yet our graduate numbers continue to rise above the state’s benchmarks. We awarded more than 40 percent of the bachelor’s degrees conferred by public universities in Idaho last year while keeping tuition at the fourth-most affordable among the 15 Western states.

If Idaho’s workforce is to improve its standing in wages and income, the state must make higher education the priority it was before the recession and keep a postsecondary education accessible to all who want to make the sacrifice and commitment to achieve their goals.

Kustra is president of Boise State University.

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