Wyatt Wurtenberger, who graduated from Emmett High School last spring, was always iffy about college.
“For most of high school I didn’t think I was going to go,” said Wurtenberger, 18. “I am not the most academically inclined. I am not worried about grades. I do what I can to pass.”
One day in November 2015, a letter showed up at his house from the Idaho State Board of Education saying he’d already been accepted to several Idaho public colleges, including the University of Idaho and Boise State.
It was awhile before the indifferent student read the letter carefully, but when he did, it was pivotal.
“I wasn’t certain I was college material,” he said. “That convinced me otherwise.”
A year ago I started drawing again and sometimes people like it. So I decided to follow that a little bit more.
Wyatt Wurtenberger, Boise State freshman
Similar letters went to 20,000 Idaho high school seniors last November, the latest effort in Idaho to grease the transition from high school to higher education in a state where fewer than half of high school graduates go to college.
The “go-on rate” of students who go immediately to college has dropped from 50 percent in 2013 to 44 percent in 2015, said Blake Youde, spokesman for the State Board of Education. This sagging rate has long bedeviled Idaho education and has resisted efforts to change it. Even the state’s own goal of getting 60 percent of its population between 25 and to 34 equipped with some post-high school degree appears to be moving out of reach.
Boosting Idaho’s go-on rate is seen as one of the keys to improving the state’s workforce and lagging paychecks.
Idaho’s goal for the letters is simple: Remove college acceptance as a barrier for those students who are deciding whether to apply.
The state’s direct admissions program began with this year’s incoming college freshmen. The first letters went out last fall, telling students to which college they were accepted, based on grade point average and test scores.
What’s left for the students is to fill out an application and arrange for financing.
Direct admission is available to Idaho high school seniors at all of the state’s eight public colleges: Boise State, U of I, Idaho State University, Lewis-Clark State College, North Idaho College, College of Western Idaho, College of Southern Idaho and Eastern Idaho Technical College.
The state board was “proactive in addressing a declining go-on rate,” Youde said.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
In the first survey of how students reacted to the letter, more than 400 told the state that it had a medium to high effect on their decision to attend college. The survey was sent to 8,300 Idaho students who had applied by February. About 1,400 responded.
41 percentNumber of survey respondents who said the direct admission letter made little impact on their decision to go to college
State officials also reported a 6.7 percent increase in the number of in-state college freshmen enrolled in Idaho public colleges this year — up to 5,712 from 5,354 last year — as another indication that the letters had some effect.
Education officials are optimistic about the results, especially since that first letter didn’t go out until November 2015 and students had only a few months to make up their minds. This year’s batch of letters went out in September.
While signs are encouraging, the best indicator of actual college attendance will come in a few weeks, when the National Student Clearing House reports enrollment rates.
Meanwhile, educators are divided on the effect of Idaho’s Direct Admissions program, which officials say is unique in the country. Some educators say they see a link to improved enrollment. Others say it is difficult to determine.
MORE U OF I FRESHMEN
Chuck Staben, University of Idaho president, said the number of the school’s freshmen from Idaho is up 6.5 percent in 2016 over the previous year. And enrollment for fall 2017 among potential Idaho freshmen also is ahead of last year, which Staben attributes to the fact that the direct admission letter got in the hands of students sooner this time around.
The admission letters may have made a difference, said Jim Anderson, Boise State’s associate vice president for enrollment services, but it is hard to quantify. A number of factors could be affecting students attending Boise State, he said.
The school’s new True Blue Promise scholarship, announced last December, will give high-performing, low-income students $2,000 a year for four years. The number of Idaho high schools that have focused on college attendance with college application weeks has grown from a handful a few years ago to 70 today, Anderson said.
“The truth is it would be very, very difficult to pinpoint how much that one effort alone made,” he said.
But not for Wurtenberger.
The letter, says the Boise State freshman art student, “played a significant role.”