Suspecting the high cost of a college education is keeping more Idaho kids away from the classroom is one thing.
Actually seeing proof is quite another.
About half of Idaho’s high school graduates don’t continue their education. That puts Idaho’s go-on rate in the national basement — bad news for a state stuck in a cycle of unskilled workers working in a low-wage economy. For University of Idaho President Chuck Staben, whose enrollment continues to slip, it’s equally bad news.
So last year, Staben assigned the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research with this challenge: Find the kids who don’t go to school and ask them why they stayed home.
Turns out it’s harder to pull off than it might seem.
High school students on the brink of entering college are eager to talk about it. Not so with kids who are resigned to not going.
For instance, 71 percent of the 385 students who responded to the McClure Center were enrolled in a four-year institution, a two-year college or a certificate/trade school program — or nearly half again Idaho’s actual go-on rate.
Of the remaining 110:
▪ A plurality — 39 percent – said the cost of an education kept them home. Most of them hoped to attend school after they saved up money from working. But the longer they wait, it’s less likely they'll ever matriculate.
▪ More than 15 percent saw no economic justification for continuing their education.
▪ Nearly 14 percent said they lacked a plan for entering school.
▪ 7 percent were taking time out for a church mission.
▪ 2 percent had joined the military.
Finances resonate through the rest of the survey.
For instance, Idahoans are a conservative lot, both politically and in their personal finances. They are skeptical about assuming debt. So when the McClure Center asked high school students about taking out loans, 48 percent said it was a bad idea.
They also want to see a return on their investment — and a third of them are skeptical about whether spending all that time and money on education will lead to a better paying job.
Financial rewards motivate men to attend school; women are more interested in broadening their horizons. So why would anyone be surprised when the percentage of Idaho male high school grads still in school drops to 38 percent while 53 percent of females are continuing on?
The remedies are not earth-shattering. Slow down the escalating costs of attending school. Expand scholarships — especially those for needy students. And someone needs to get the message out that college means a better, more abundant life — especially to students whose own parents did not graduate from college.
You'll find much of that in Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s education package.
Under the governor’s plan, tuition would be locked in at the rate students paid when they entered school.
He would double the $5 million Opportunity Scholarships — and create a $5 million fund to encourage students who dropped out to resume their education.
Otter also proposes to spend $5 million on college and career advisers in the high schools.
Like the Staben survey, it’s only a start. There’s more work to come. But when that time comes, the case for expanding college accessibility in Idaho will be based on facts, not guesswork.