Gov. Butch Otter’s new task force on higher education is another step forward toward supporting, funding and maintaining a sustainable system that ensures future generations have the education and skills to distinguish Idaho’s economy across the new American West. His choice of co-chairs Linda Clark and Bob Lokken demonstrates his interest in results, given Linda and Bob’s work on the successful K-12 task force.
Across the state, students have more opportunities in higher education than ever before. There are now three nationally classified doctoral research public universities, a strong four-year college, three community colleges and a technical college, each with missions and roles that meet state needs, but also serve the specific needs of their communities.
Together, we have been striving since 2010 toward an ambitious goal of ensuring that 60 percent of Idahoans between the ages of 25 and 35 have a certificate or degree by 2020. As Idaho public higher education works toward the 2020 goal, it has done so by keeping costs as low as possible for our students and their families — among the 50 states, we rank seventh in lowest in-state tuition.
Yet, Idaho higher education is still challenged to respond to our dynamic and demanding marketplace. Employers tell us regularly it’s not enough to meet today’s workforce needs, but we must also innovate and adapt our academic and professional education to the jobs and careers of tomorrow.
At the most basic level, just talk to human resources leaders at any large company in the state in any industry and they will tell you they are facing a coming crisis of retirements from aging baby boomers. A great many of these jobs will require college degrees — even if those poised to leave them after 30 years were able to get their foot in the door with a high school diploma and hard work. Idaho higher education remains the hope and future for our young people and their life and career success.
The Task Force will review how far Idaho public higher education has come in recent years and how we chart a path for the future success of Idaho citizens. In doing so, the task force will have the opportunity to review the effectiveness of academic programming and research, how our universities and colleges are serving the state’s economy and communities, whether our faculty and staff compensation is competitive with sister states, and the extent to which our universities and colleges are working together to achieve the state’s common goals.
The solution isn’t simply more money, of course, but studies have shown that investments in higher education pay off — in increased tax revenue and economic activity for states, in lower unemployment and higher lifetime earnings for families. For the state’s investment in higher education to meet these goals for our students, funding must be as focused and cost-effective as possible. To achieve this, the task force can pick up on recent work of the State Board of Education in identifying the metrics that will determine how the state’s higher education budget is allocated among our universities and colleges on an outcome or accountability basis.
Thanks to the governor’s leadership, the support of our State Board members and the willingness of the Idaho Legislature to act on the recommendations of task forces such as the K-12 experience, I believe this task force has the potential to lead Idaho into a new era of higher education — one that increases opportunities for Idaho students around the state and that connects seamlessly to both public K-12 education, where our students are coming from, and to the industries and employers where they are headed.
Robert Kustra is president of Boise State University.