The U.S. is experiencing a shrinking middle class, a decline in per capita family income, and the reality that a child born poor in this country is more likely than ever to stay poor.
Most people believe, and research confirms, that the pathway to the American middle class runs directly through post-secondary education. Education beyond high school is no longer just one way to attain middle-class status; increasingly, it’s the only way.
When it comes to post-secondary education, Idaho faces unique challenges and opportunities:
First, though Idaho’s high school graduation rate is relatively high (78 percent in 2012), it ranks 50th in college participation and 38th in the percent of college enrollees who earn an associate degree or higher. Second, the majority of Idaho’s students are academically under prepared for post-secondary success.
Finally, the national pattern of educational attainment leading to higher earnings does not appear to hold in Idaho. Data indicate that Idaho’s economy relies disproportionately on low-paying industries and that employees in relatively high-wage jobs tend to be less educated and to earn lower wages than their national peers.
If these trends are to be reversed, community colleges in Idaho and across the country must do much of the heavy lifting. Especially in rural areas, these institutions are the bridge to the American Dream. But to do the work required of them, community colleges must make changes needed to strengthen student participation and success in college; and they must be strongly supported in those efforts.
The eight recommendations below can help community colleges in Idaho and nationally strengthen college readiness and participation.
1. Dual enrollment programs for high school students should include mandatory support activities such as orientation, early college-readiness assessments, and parent engagement.
2. Community colleges must focus dual enrollment services and other efforts on the populations that typically have been less likely to be college-bound.
3. Advising should provide data-informed scenarios about career pathways, necessary educational attainment and potential earnings.
4. Idaho should support models that place community college success coaches on site in high schools.
5. Institutions should design clear, structured academic and career pathways for students that explicitly lead to transfer and/or careers providing family-supporting wages.
6. Community college pathways should extend into high schools through collaboration with K-12 systems — with attention to Common Core standards alignment.
7. Students must have clear pathways that allow them to transfer credits and continue their major at a four-year college or university.
8. Community college pathways must align with the Idaho economy and with state and local strategies for economic and workforce development.
None of these recommendations can be implemented cost-free. The challenging tasks for community college and K-12 leaders will be to examine existing programs’ effectiveness, to look for high-impact programs in other colleges and to commit to reallocating existing resources for implementing effective practices at scale. This means that colleges also must stop doing some things that are less effective, outdated or infeasible at scale.
Further, the needed changes in institutional structures, curriculum, service delivery and even culture are substantial and daunting. Governing boards in particular must understand the magnitude of change that may be required and help lead it.
The task for education leaders, policymakers and the philanthropic community is to create policy and fiscal conditions within which community colleges can do the work their students, communities and state need from them. The costs of not doing this will inevitably be paid in terms of threats to economic prosperity and quality of life for the citizens of Idaho.
Kay M. McClenney is with Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho, an initiative of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, a private family foundation based in Boise.