On Saturday, Idaho enjoys a special honor as the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree is selected from the Payette National Forest near McCall. You don’t have to be a University of Idaho forestry graduate to know that Idaho provides abundant options for selecting what is known as “The People’s Tree.” What many may not realize is that July 2 is also the 154th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Morrill Act, the landmark legislation that created our land-grant-university system. What does that history mean for Idaho’s future?
The nation’s land-grant universities have a special mission to provide practical education with relevance to the lives of students, “to those needing higher instruction for the world’s business, for the industrial pursuits and professions of life,” in the words of Justin Smith Morrill, the act’s sponsor. Land-grant schools also conduct research and community engagement that supports the economic and cultural aspirations of the state. At U of I, those ideals animate our forward-looking mission for Idaho.
My presidency has focused on changing Idaho’s college-going culture. For most people, a college degree offers the best way forward for a rewarding career and a great life. The unemployment rate for those with a four-year degree is just 2.4 percent, an extraordinarily low rate that surprises too many people. A college graduate, on average, earns up to $1 million more over the course of a lifetime than those without a degree. Educated citizens are also essential for a strong Idaho economy — Idaho Business for Education notes research suggesting that by 2018, 68 percent of Idaho’s jobs will require postsecondary education.
Our McCall Field Campus showcases efforts to get students to college. At our McCall Outdoor Science School program, more than 20,000 K-12 students from across Idaho have experienced hands-on learning that prepares them for the critical inquiry and scientific approaches practiced in college. These are Idaho’s future leaders — the professionals who will steward our natural resources, including the Christmas trees of the future, and the employees and entrepreneurs in countless other vocations. Importantly, more than 1,000 teachers have participated in professional training at McCall to prepare the next generation of college students — exciting work on the front lines of Idaho’s “go-on” initiatives.
Partnerships are central to our land-grant work. Uof I research yields the discovery and innovation that is the raw material for economic development, in everything from agriculture to natural resources to technology. Our Extension network supports communities, this summer unveiling a “Night of the Living Debt” video game to promote financial literacy. That program positions Idahoans to succeed through higher education, at our state’s affordable land-grant research university or elsewhere.
This fall, as the Christmas tree selected Saturday tours Idaho and the nation, it symbolizes the promise of a bright future at the heart of the Morrill Act. That vision shapes our university’s efforts for our students, our state and our world. It informs our future as one of the nation’s great public research universities — serving the world by serving Idaho.
Chuck Staben is president of the University of Idaho.