BOISE • Boosting the number of young people with post-high school degrees by 20 percentage points in four years might be an ambitious goal. But, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and others said Monday, the need for a better-educated workforce is too great for the state to take its eye off the ball.
“It’s important for us now to stay the course,” Rod Gramer, head of Idaho Business for Education, told a joint meeting of the Senate and House education committees. “It’s important for us now to see this agenda through.”
The state Board of Education set a goal in 2010 that 60 percent of Idahoans between the ages of 25 and 34 would have a degree or certificate by 2020. The board based the goal on an analysis by Georgetown University predicting about that percentage of jobs in Idaho would require an associate’s degree or greater by 2020. The governor’s education task force also endorsed the goal.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has put increases in college funding and scholarship programs in his 2016-2017 budget request, and Little is sponsoring a resolution this year reaffirming the 60 percent goal. Currently, the number is 40 percent and has dropped over the past three years. While that change is not statistically significant, “neither is it trending in the right direction,” said state Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman.
At the same time, Freeman said, it wouldn’t make sense to scale the goal down to something lower or more drawn out.
“The fact remains that we’re going to have the workforce need,” he said. “It may be a stretch goal, but we’re still going to have that need.”
Even if the state drops or delays the goal, “it’s not going to change the reality that our employers need 60 to 70 percent of their workers holding a post-secondary credential,” Gramer said. “Not achieving this goal has serious ramifications for our business community.”
Little hopes his resolution will raise awareness and support for increasing the number of students going to college as a state priority. He called it “a measurable and obtainable ‘beehog’ — a big, hairy, audacious goal.”
While all the lawmakers who spoke at Monday’s hearing supported more higher education, some were skeptical reaching 60 percent in four years is realistic.
“We just don’t see how we’re going to hit it in four years,” said Sen. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett. “We don’t see how the numbers work out.”
Little acknowledged that there is a lot to do, saying it will take initiatives to encourage people to go to college or get professional training — and improvements in K-12 schools so more students are ready to go on after high school.
“If I had a gun put to my head and they asked me to bet the ranch on it, I might be a little reluctant,” Little said. “But there are a lot of things we can do in the interim.”
Out of the new initiatives Otter is proposing this year, a $10.7 million initiative to boost elementary school reading skills will have the biggest influence long-term on the number of Idahoans who go on to higher education, Little told the Times-News after his presentation.
By 2020, though?
Little said Otter’s proposed increases in support for professional certification programs is the “low-hanging fruit.” Other helpful initiatives include Otter’s proposed “tuition lock” — keeping tuition the same for four years for freshmen who qualify — and a “completion scholarship” to encourage people who have some college to finish.
The senators in Monday’s meeting approved it unanimously, sending it on to the full Senate. If it passes there, it will continue on to the House.