In the original “Back to the Future” movie, Marty McFly fades from his family photo as his past, present and future collide. This time of year, Idaho’s high school seniors are beginning their own fade from their present selves as they prepare for life after graduation. This transition process is made worse, not better, by Idaho’s singular focus on getting seniors to “go on” to postsecondary education or training.
“Go on” misses the point that entering an academic or technical program is one small step in the process of becoming a credentialed citizen. Students are mid-fade when they “go on,” and the state’s obligation to keep them from disappearing is just beginning. It is time for Idaho to find language that emphasizes staying in postsecondary education as much as going on. Beyond shifting language, we need our public colleges and universities to work more closely as a system to prevent the fade.
There are plenty of reasons why a unified approach to helping students stay in postsecondary education has not caught on in Idaho. First, there is the argument that the state’s obligation to shape public education, and provide the funding that goes with it, mostly ends at the 12th grade. Resources for a statewide staying-in campaign do not exist. Then, there is the argument that academic freedom and institutional faculty governance dictate against a statewide effort. Eight colleges and universities work primarily in isolation to help their individual student populations succeed. And, finally, most Idahoans view the state’s institutions as competitors against each other. This makes sense in sports, but not in developing enough skilled workers and citizens to meet our state’s needs.
What results is magical thinking: Believing that one event (attaining a credential) happens as a result of another (going on) without a plausible causal link. The state set an ambitious goal to see 60 percent of its 25-34-year-old citizens attain a postsecondary credential without a state strategy for achieving that goal.
There are pockets of cross-institutional collaboration to support student success. Members of the Idaho Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (IACRAO) work across institutions and with high schools to guide students through “go on.” In the Council on Academic Affairs and Programs, provosts and executive vice presidents deliberate systemwide policy improvements for State Board of Education consideration. Idaho’s career and technical educators receive support from the state to share ideas and meet assessment standards. In each case, deference to institutional autonomy exists next to openness to operate as a system.
Institutional autonomy would suffice if Idaho’s postsecondary graduation rates were satisfactory. They are not. Of the 45 percent of graduates who go on immediately after high school, roughly a third won’t make it past the first postsecondary year. The share of Idahoans with a postsecondary credential sits at just over 40 percent. How have other states addressed similar shortfalls? Not by dictating systemwide change; by developing educator networks based on shared interests and developing policies from that work. Utah, Texas, Wyoming, Tennessee, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Colorado, Minnesota and West Virginia all host statewide gatherings to collectively address lowering barriers to student success and to advise policymakers. These and other states support networks of students, trustees, librarians and other stakeholders to learn about promising practices and collectively advocate for change.
The press to “go on” is not enough. Idaho’s colleges and universities owe it to the families paying for post-high school education or training to act as a system to keep students from disappearing. Idaho’s leaders are obligated to find the resources to make that happen.
Jean M. Henscheid, Ph.D., is a fellow with the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, and a seventh-generation Idahoan with degrees from Idaho State University and Washington State University. Her career as a postsecondary educator and faculty member in Idaho, Washington and Oregon spans three decades.