How will Idaho get more workers with degrees? Higher ed task force begins search for answers

Boosting Idaho colleges

An Idaho task force is focusing on ways to improve post high school education with an eye toward brightening the state's economy.
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An Idaho task force is focusing on ways to improve post high school education with an eye toward brightening the state's economy.

Idaho’s 7-year-old goal of getting 60 percent of its workforce ages 25 to 34 equipped with post-high school certificates or degrees by 2020 has evaporated.

When the goal was first created in 2010, Idaho’s rate was 38 percent. It has crept up 4 percentage points to 42 percent.

“We can’t do that,” said Gov. Butch Otter told the Statesman.

Otter and other key education leaders are unwilling to adjust the deadline.

“I don’t like the idea of setting targets too low and hitting them,” Otter said. “I like the idea of setting them way up high and striving to attain them.”

74,666 Students enrolled in Idaho colleges in fall 2016

Against a backdrop of scant progress toward that target and a college go-on rate among Idaho high school seniors that is just 46 percent, Otter has created a Task Force on Higher Education that is starting its work on how to get more students equipped with post-secondary training.

Otter gave the task force full rein to look at any issue it thinks is important. Nothing is off the table, the governor said.

And he’s upfront about expecting the plan to come with a price tag.

“Will it come at a cost? No question,” he told Idaho Statesman editors last week.

The task force expects to put a list of recommendations on Otter’s desk by September.

Bill Roberts, Idaho Statesman education reporter, talked with the task force co-chairs, Linda Clark, State Board of Education vice president, and Bob Lokken, CEO of WhiteCloud Analytics, about the challenges that lay ahead for the 36-member committee. Clark and Lokken served on Otter’s 2013 public education task force, which led to a five-year plan to improve public schools with a $350 million price tag that Idaho lawmakers have largely embraced. Otter wants this task force to develop a similar plan for Idaho colleges, with similar legislative backing.

Key points from the discussion, which has been lightly edited for space and clarity:

▪  Idaho needs to do a better job of matching degrees to workforce needs.

▪  Many Idahoans still don’t see the value in getting an education beyond high school.

▪  A statewide information campaign may be necessary to drive home the importance of post-secondary education.

Q: Colleges and universities say they need more money. Many students say they don’t go to college because tuition is too high. The college go-on rate has been low and is holding flat. Given that set of circumstances, what kind of job does this task force have ahead of itself?

Clark: I think we have a big job in a fairly short period of time. The task force has already identified a number of areas — you hit on some of them: affordability and access, and finances.

Lokken: I think our current higher education system does its current job as it’s defined pretty well. We’ve moved into a knowledge-based economy where we are putting more and more demands on what post-secondary education means: one-year degrees, two-year degrees, certificates. And we are placing higher loads and new demands (on schools) because of the jobs that are being created. Part of the work will tuck and trim the existing system. But I think there is a bigger discussion that we are thinking lumps into affordability and access issues: The current system as it is designed is not serving well a certain segment of the population. Their economic viability and the state’s economic viability is kind of what the stakes are.

If we can get these goals, we can collect more tax revenue, because we have higher-paying jobs, more people with jobs ... and there will be enough to fund this.

Bob Lokken, Higher Education Task Force co-chair

Q: Who is not being served by Idaho’s system?

Lokken: If you look at the current system, we have people entering the (workforce) at about 25-34 years of age. About 42 percent have some certificate or degree. That needs to be 60 to 65 percent. When I say people are underserved, it’s that gap. What are the barriers that are keeping them out?

The task force will almost certainly look at how colleges are funded. There is some discussion that the driver should be education outcomes, such as the number of graduates, not just increasing student enrollment.

Clark: We have to ask the hard question: Is our system graduating these people with the right kind of credentials to meet the challenges of the economy and the workplace? There are a significant number of jobs in Idaho today that are not filled. So part of the work of this task force is to look at certificates, associate’s degree, bachelor’s, what the demands in the work force will be.

Q: Is this goal of having 60 percent of the workforce ages 25 to 34 with some post-secondary education by 2020 really still realistic?

Lokken: If you’re pedantic around that particular goal, it is fairly easy to do some simple math to figure out there is no way we are going to get it by 2020. It takes too long to get people through and get them a diploma or a certificate. We’ve done some modeling: If we could immediately increase by 50 percent the number of people who are getting degrees every year out of all of our two- and four-year institutions, we would have to run at that rate for almost a decade to get to the 60 percent goal. The gap is big.

There is a two-edge sword on not being (on track to reach) that goal. You end up with a supply of people who don’t have the right skills to get a job, which means a high unemployment rate in that subsector of the economy. It means wages are depressed. People are living on minimum wage. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got Idaho businesses that are trying to grow. The jobs they are creating require this sort of education, and when they can’t fill those jobs, what do they do? If you’re not landlocked to our soil, you end up moving those businesses out of state.

Clark: If we tweak anything, it would be a date by which we get (to 60 percent).

Part of our job is communicating with the public about the difference a person (earns) over their lifetime.

Linda Clark, Higher Education Task Force co-chair, on the value of a post-secondary degree

Q: Do you think we should?

Clark: I think that is part of the consideration that will come out of the task force.

Q: What do you see as the most urgent task?

Lokken: I think the sense of urgency is you continually see us having problems filling jobs in this state. Commerce and business leaves the state, or growth is not what it should be.

Q. We’ve seen a lot of change to get students to college: letters of acceptance to an Idaho college before students even apply, and the state paying for dual-credit classes and getting a tremendous response. And yet the best they can show this year is the go-on rate didn’t go down. It held even. What does that tell you?

Clark: It tell us that among other things, there are cultural issues here that we really need to identify and address in terms of the value of post-secondary education. This state historically has offered a lot of (jobs) to young people without degrees and certificates. We have a different economy today, and I believe those same opportunities don’t exist for them. But I am not sure that, generationally, some families accept that. I think a public-information campaign is going to have to be a part of this, to apprise people of this sense of urgency.

Q: One of the things that came out of the public education task force was the near unanimity of recommendations. On this task force, you are dealing with eight colleges and universities that are by nature competitive. Do you need unanimity? Are you hoping for that?

Clark: We’ve already talked with the task force about the need for that, the power that comes with consensus. I believe that one of the reasons we’ve been able to get the traction that we got for the public schools task force recommendations was because we had that. It’s essential that the recommendations meet with the same kind of consensus.

Q: Are you concerned that colleges that have to compete and fight for every student are going to be willing to sit down and do that?

Clark: I think they have the ability to look at the system. That is what we are going to ask them to do. From the first moment we were talking with them, we asked everybody in that room to put aside their parochial views and to realize this is about the state of Idaho. None of us there should be looking at this through the lens of their own institution.

Lokken: I would go as far as saying it is a precondition to being on the task force.

Idaho colleges by the numbers

Public colleges and universities: 8

Total state general fund appropriations for 2018: $368 million

2015 graduates: 13,447

Average student debt after college (2015, includes private schools): $27,639

Task force meeting

The next meeting of the task force is June 9 at the Boise State University Student Union Building. The time has not yet been announced. Meetings are open to the public.