TWIN FALLS — The College of Southern Idaho is playing a key role in helping eastern Idaho residents further their education.
At the request of state officials, the college has offered general education classes — in subjects such as English in math — in Idaho Falls since 2013.
Now, CSI is helping in an advisory role for an initiative to transform Eastern Idaho Technical College in Idaho Falls into a community college. It’s the last major population center in the Gem State without that offering.
“I believe in the value of higher education,” CSI President Jeff Fox said Wednesday. “I think eastern Idaho would benefit incredibly from a presence up there.”
The Bonneville County Elections Office last week certified 2,852 signatures for a petition proposing that Eastern Idaho Technical College be turned into a community college.
Now, the State Board of Education will review the proposal and determine whether Eastern Idaho needs a community college. If approved, the initiative will proceed to the Bonneville County Commission, which will decide whether to place it on the ballot.
The Idaho Falls Post Register reports Citizens for Affordable Higher Education, the group backing the effort, expects the measure to reach the May ballot.
The group’s spokesman says the “College of Eastern Idaho” would cost the average Bonneville County homeowner $13.37 per year. Bonneville residents would have access to cheaper tuition than non-residents.
CSI executive vice president Todd Schwarz said he and other CSI officials have gotten questions about why they’re helping in eastern Idaho. Helping out is the right thing to do, he said.
“I very much believe in the community college function and mission,” he said. “It’s a just a shame (eastern Idaho doesn’t) have that over there. We want to help them build that.”
If a community college becomes a reality in eastern Idaho, CSI would consider what to do about its outreach center in Idaho Falls.
“We intend to stay there as long as we have students showing up who need these services,” Schwarz said.
But Fox said if a community college is launched in eastern Idaho, “we’re no longer needed.”
Josh Sakelaris, director of CSI’s Idaho Falls center, wasn’t available to comment Wednesday because of a snow day campus closure.
CSI leaders have met with business, government and education officials in Idaho Falls and surrounding communities several times to provide guidance on a model for a community college and how the process works.
“As a result, I think they gained some confidence and an idea that ‘I think we can do this,’” Fox said.
In a statement to the Times-News, Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper wrote a community college would help meet the needs of existing and future employers by providing highly trained, educated workers.
“If created, I fully expect a community college to have a meaningful and positive impact on the region’s job market,” she wrote.
Casper wrote she’s pleased about the quality of research and work done by a citizen study committee about whether a community college would be a good fit for eastern Idaho.
Eastern Idaho Technical College’s campus has the capacity to support many more students, she added, and can serve them affordably — both in terms of tuition costs and property tax levy.
Currently, the school only offers technical degrees. They have a few general education transfer classes, but they’re part of requirements for technical degrees such as welding.
It’s not the first time CSI has helped launch a community college. In 2008, CSI was the accreditation sponsor to help Idaho’s newest community college, College of Western Idaho in the Treasure Valley, get up and running.
For more than three years, CSI employees ran business operations for CWI. That included awarding student financial aid, managing registrations and running the college’s bookstore.
But it’s a completely different scenario for Eastern Idaho Technical College, Fox said.
The school won’t need an accreditation sponsor. That’s because it already has accreditation as a two-year technical school.
There’s a significant advantage in eastern Idaho because it wouldn’t be creating a college from scratch, Schwarz said.
In order to become a community college and offer transfer courses, Fox said, a process to modify the eastern Idaho school’s accreditation could take as little as six months.
CSI’s history in eastern Idaho
When Jerry Beck was CSI president, the college had a legislative budget request for a couple of years to start an Idaho Falls center. But it wasn’t approved by legislators.
Fox became president in 2013 and sat down with state officials to say he wouldn’t continue making the request if it wouldn’t be funded. “I was told not to take it off,” he said.
Legislators approved funding for an Idaho Falls center, including an administrator and office worker, during the 2013 legislative session. CSI began offering classes the following fall.
Enrollment in CSI’s Idaho Falls classes is growing. “We’re just busy,” Fox said.
There were 229 enrollments during the 2015-16 school year. That’s the number of class enrollments, though — not the total number of students.
CSI is asking for funding this legislative session for two full-time faculty members in eastern Idaho. Currently, it relies solely on adjunct instructors.
The region is home to Idaho State University in Pocatello, but CSI offers general education classes like English 101 at about half the price, Fox said. “That’s what community colleges do: deliver lower-division transfer classes at an affordable price.”
CSI students pay $130 per credit. For students outside the college’s taxing district of Twin Falls and Jerome counties, their home county also chips in $50 per credit — up to 10 credits or $500 per semester.
“I think there’s a huge cost benefit to there being a community college (in Idaho Falls),” Schwarz said.
In her statement, Casper wrote Bonneville County residents will have a “vigorous discussion” about the benefits and costs of turning Eastern Idaho Technical College into a community college.
“I certainly believe there are substantial benefits,” she wrote. “But everyone who votes is going to have to determine whether or not these benefits justify the costs.”