An army of analysts and educators equipped with an arsenal of tools, programs and money is working toward an elusive and complicated goal: removing obstacles to postsecondary education that will translate into the skilled workers and career-ready graduates employers need.
Who would argue with the premise of “Complete College Idaho,” a State Board of Education initiative launched in 2010?
It was introduced as “a plan for growing talent to fuel innovation and economic growth in the Gem State. . . The State Board has set an ambitious goal that 60 percent of Idahoans ages 25 to 34 will have a degree or certificate by 2020.”
This is not some blue-sky think-tank mantra. Achieving it is critical to Idaho’s economic success and future position as a place that can provide the skilled and educated workers employers need. If you don’t build it — the talent pool — then they will not come.
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New companies and industries will bypass Idaho for states that do provide the prescribed workforce. If we fail, the good, living-wage jobs will locate beyond our borders, further branding the Gem State as a place where lower-paying service industry work dominates.
At the time the Complete College Idaho program was launched, a Georgetown University study estimated that by 2018, 61 percent of Idaho jobs would require some form of postsecondary credential, and by 2020, 63 percent would require a certificate or degree. Idaho’s starting point back then: just 35 percent of students were prepared.
Since then, the job market goalposts have moved. The new estimate says 69 percent of Idaho jobs will require postsecondary education or training. Idaho got its rate up to 42 percent at one point, but then regressed to 40 percent.
This does not reflect a lack of enthusiasm, funding or work toward the goal. To the contrary, Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education and its five-year K-to-career plan has been all about meeting the challenges of Complete College Idaho. An array of programs rolls out every year as obstacles are identified, including some initiatives in the 2016-2017 education budget: $5 million for college and career counseling for students; $5 million for adult degree completion scholarships; a series of initiatives targeting various public colleges; more slots for students seeking one-year certificates.
What concerns the board is a situation that Idaho educators have little or no control over: a belief embraced by too many high school students and their parents that investment in postsecondary education is not worth it. Statistics say the opposite.
The low-hanging fruit of jobs that pay enough to make rent and a car payment are out there. A marginally improving Idaho economy — in which, for example, construction has picked up and put people back to work — is another form of competition for the goal.
“Idaho has a culture of college-going that is not as robust as we wish it was,” said Matt Freeman, executive director of the State Board of Education.
To its credit, the state’s top educators are not scaling back. They can’t and shouldn’t. Moving the goals to, say, 2025 would be tantamount to giving up on five years of students who will fall further behind those with better skills.
But nobody wins trophies for trying hard. The State Board is shooting for 50 percent success by 2018, and we won’t get there unless we all become evangelists for both ends of the learning spectrum: from early education to those postsecondary goals.
“We” equates especially to parents, teachers, counselors, legislators, the media, and all other elected officials and role models. We have to carry the message that the living-wage jobs of the future that will keep our best and brightest working and succeeding in Idaho will require training, education, investment and commitment.
As attractive and traditional as some fields might be, the future is not going to sustain the same number of farmworkers and ranchers. There won’t be as many jobs in the mines and forests. Lumber mills that once hired by the hundreds now can operate with a couple of dozen skilled workers.
Advocating for Complete College Idaho is not just the right thing to do philosophically and morally — it’s the right thing to do because our future hangs in the balance.
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