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North Idaho College could offer four-year computer science degree

BOISE – Students at North Idaho College could earn a four-year bachelor’s degree in Coeur d’Alene through a cooperative program with the University of Idaho, under a higher education budget approved by Idaho lawmakers on Monday.

NIC has reported growing interest in its computer science associate degree, with 74 students now declaring that major and entry-level classes filling up and forcing additional sections to be added.

“What we’re hearing from industry is there’s very strong demand,” said Mark Browning, NIC vice president. “It sends a very strong signal that the Legislature and higher ed is responding to industry demands and needs.”

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, helped craft the budget. “It’s extremely significant for Coeur d’Alene,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of potential for growth in the tech industry up here. The problem is we don’t have the workforce to support it, at least the trained workforce.”

Overall, the budget the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved for Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities next year – Boise State University, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College – reflects an 8 percent increase in state funding, slightly below the governor’s proposed 8.8 percent increase. The budget comes to $279.5 million in state general funds.

Included within that is a line item for five positions and $950,000 in state funding for a cooperative program between the University of Idaho and North Idaho College to allow two-year associate degree students in computer science at NIC to go on to complete four-year computer science bachelor’s degrees.

Not funded: Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed $10 million “Tuition Lock” program, aimed at heading off tuition increases during a student’s four-year college career if they maintain their grades and progress.

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, led an unsuccessful move to add $6.3 million to the budget to head off any tuition increases for students next year. Gannon’s plan would have used state funds to cover the cost of 3 percent merit raises for university employees and increased employee health insurance costs, which the state is requiring the universities to cover.

Gannon noted that tuition and fee revenue at Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities has jumped from $129.1 million in fiscal year 2009 to $247.7 million this year. “What we’ve seen happen is a huge tuition increase,” he said. “This is just an enormous burden on these kids.”

Other committee members told Gannon they appreciated his work on the proposal, but the budget crafted by Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and a group of lawmakers including Malek passed on a 16-4 vote. That meant Gannon’s alternative didn’t get considered.

The higher education budget still needs House and Senate passage and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once set by the joint committee.

The committee also set next year’s budget for Idaho’s three community colleges on Monday, including NIC. It includes an 8.7 percent increase in state funding to $36.9 million, slightly below Otter’s recommendation for a 9.6 percent increase.

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