BOISE – Most Idaho high school graduates don’t go on to any form of higher education, and some state officials say it’s time for that to change.
“There’s already a heavy focus on making sure that the 20 percent who struggle the most are getting a basic education,” said state Superintendent of Schools Marilyn Howard. “At a time when districts have really cut back as far as they can go, it’s time for us to try to move forward with some low-cost ways of helping able students move forward.”
Howard is proposing an $800,000 “college readiness initiative” as part of her budget proposal for public schools for next year. The plan calls for the state to pay for college entrance exams for all interested high school juniors, plus train more teachers for Advanced Placement courses in which high school students can earn college credits.
Sue Thilo, North Idaho’s representative on the state Board of Education, said she’s “thrilled” with the proposal. “I hope it doesn’t get put on the chopping block because funding is tight,” she said.
Senate Education Chairman Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said he doesn’t know if it will fly, but, “I appreciate the fact that Dr. Howard has recognized that we have a problem and is looking for ways to solve it.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 44.8 percent of Idaho’s high school graduates went on to higher education in 2000, including universities, colleges, vocational and technical schools. That put Idaho among the bottom half-dozen states, and well below the national average of 56.7 percent.
Idaho’s rate has actually fallen in the past 12 years, from a high of 49 percent in 1992. The percentage was even lower, however, in the 1980s, when it was down into the 30s.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” Schroeder said.
Idaho historically has seen fewer of its high school graduates continue their educations than the nation as a whole. Officials say there are a variety of reasons, from cultural factors and family history to access and costs.
“In the state of Idaho, we’re in a transition period,” said Gary Stivers, executive director of the Office of the State Board of Education. “We’ve gone from industries that were heavy in mining and logging. To earn a good salary in the state of Idaho, you didn’t have to go to college in the past. Some of those industries are no longer there or not producing the same number of jobs they used to, and the industries that are coming in are more technical and requiring more job skills.”
But, he said, “The kids are still in families where that wasn’t as important.”
According to the 2000 census, only 21.7 percent of Idahoans over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s below the national figure of 24.4 percent.
“Parents are a big component of the direction that a student will take,” Thilo said. “Parents need to be coached all the way along. From kindergarten on up we need to start thinking in terms of, ‘What’s going to happen? What will make my child an independent, thriving individual in society?’ It’s going to be something beyond high school.”
Howard said her proposals are “fairly low-cost items in the big picture of things.”
Paying for every interested high school junior to take a college entrance exam, such as the SAT, ACT or Compass test used by community colleges, would cost only $30 per student.
“Just paying for and signing up to take the test itself could be a barrier to some kids,” she said. “By making it accessible to students, we would’ve already crossed that barrier, and we give the schools a tool and the students a tool to kind of assess where they are.”
Some students may be surprised to learn that they really are “college material,” she said. “It’s an impetus to have the school be very actively engaged in signing kids up, because they’d be paying the fee.”
Howard also wants to pay to train and certify 50 more high school teachers for Advanced Placement courses, which qualify students for college credit if they successfully complete the course and pass a test.
“Once you get a few credits behind you, it seems more feasible to go forward,” she said. “The end is not so far. You would have a validation about whether you were capable of doing the college-level work.”
Howard, whose overall budget proposal for public schools calls for an $80 million increase over the current year, recognizes that she faces challenges in persuading lawmakers to go along with her proposals.
“These are new initiatives, and in difficult budget times, new initiatives are usually the first things to go,” she said. “That’s a question they’ll have to face.”
She added, “They can’t be put in place in substitution for helping school districts keep the lights on and the heat on and the doors open.”
But, Howard said, “the future vitality of Idaho as a place with an economy strong enough to have people feel that they can make their lives here, is absolutely dependent on us moving to help our able students advance. We just have to show that kind of support and that kind of confidence in them if we’re going to have that happen.”
Schroeder said that when he held forums on education around the state he heard that some schools are cutting out advanced courses in order to offer remedial classes for students who can’t pass the new Idaho Standards Achievement Test. That test is becoming a high school graduation requirement.
“That’s a very dangerous trend,” he said. “Whether or not paying those fees for the SAT and ACT is the most important thing we can do, I don’t know. But I do know one thing, unless the students have had the course work so they can do well on the test, it doesn’t make any difference whether we pay it or not.”
Stivers said the state Board of Education also is concerned about that.
“The board is extremely interested in getting more kids to take math and science in their junior and senior years, and a lot of them aren’t,” he said.
A study released last week by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education concluded that in the past 10 years, most states, including Idaho, have made significant gains on preparing students for college. But the study concluded that college has become less affordable, leading fewer, rather than more, of those students to enroll.
Stivers said the state board is concerned about affordability. “That’s a key factor, constantly,” he said.
Though Idaho’s student fees at its public colleges have seen sharp increases in recent years – and those increases are likely to continue – Stivers noted that Idaho’s average cost for public colleges and universities is still below the national average. Idaho’s average is $3,300 for student fees for a year, he said, compared to a national average of $4,700.
Nancy Szofran, technology officer for the state board, said, “The problem is our family incomes haven’t risen in order to keep pace with the increases. That’s where we get dinged.”
Luci Willits, spokeswoman for the state board, said the state has expanded its scholarship programs, but they remain limited. “In terms of state dollars, our merit-based scholarships are very limited, and we have virtually no need-based scholarships,” she said.
Szofran said some states are experimenting with early outreach to students in elementary school to increase higher-education participation. “Louisiana has even put some funding to that, so if those kids take a college-prep curriculum and get a certain GPA, they are helped with tuition and fees in college,” she said.
Idaho is participating in a multistate project aimed at improving the relationship between state funding, college tuition and fees, and financial aid, Szofran said. All three now are decided separately, with state lawmakers determining funding, education officials setting fees, and federal sources providing most financial aid.
“We’ll see if we can’t integrate the policymaking so that when you see a decrease in state appropriations and an increase in tuition and fees, you understand what impact that has, so that financial aid is then adjusted appropriately and the burden isn’t borne solely by the students,” she said.
Schroeder isn’t optimistic about the chances for big steps in the state Legislature this year, as lawmakers struggle to balance a budget that will fall by $170 million a year as the state sales tax drops back down from 6 percent to 5 percent.
“I will be one of those voting to provide the dollars necessary so that the people of the state have educational opportunities,” he said. “Whether I’ll be in the majority remains to be seen. … Maybe the economy will just be roaring by January. I don’t think so.”