Before the Occupy Wall Street movement descended into something more resembling a carnival than a political movement, it started with small groups of recent college graduates focused on student loan debt. They said they were faced with crushing amounts of post-graduation debt and limited job prospects.

The protesters proposed loan forgiveness and free college tuition, but denying personal responsibility for having signed up for student loans is not the solution.

The answer is making informed decisions when choosing college, trade or technical school or immediately entering the work force.

Help in making those decisions might be immediately ahead.

In June, Idaho State Board of Education received a $3.1 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education to put in place a data collection system that would track Idaho students from the day they graduate high school through college or into the work force.

The grant will piggy-back on a project paid for in 2009 with $5.9 million from the federal government and $3.5 million in state matching funds. The 2009 project put in place a tracking system that gave each idaho student a unique identifier that follows them from school to school, town to town, grade to grade from K-12. Those students currently in school who have been given an identifier can now be tracked beyond their senior year.

Marilyn Whitney, spokeswoman for the Idaho State Board of Education, said the first limited data can be pulled this fall. Complete data will be available in 18 months.

Whitney said the Board of Education has partnered with the Idaho Department of Labor to track Idaho high school graduates into the work force and with Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education to track students across 15 member states.

The grant covers the implementation of the data collection project. From there, it will be up to legislators, educators, parents and students to determine how the data is used.

This multimillion dollar effort will be wasted if it isn’t truly accessible to the public. Whitney promises it will be.

“We are increasingly asked by our policymakers and education institutions for this kind of data. The whole idea is that you make make much better decisions when you have the imperical data,” Whitney said. “Beyond our policymakers, students and parents can look at the data and decide which degrees are in demand and where to focus in their education.

“They’ll have better indicators to successfully enter the work force.”

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The information will be searchable on the State Board of Education website, Whitney said. “The idea is to make it very transparent.”

As we reported in today’s cover story, the goal of the State Board of Education is for 60 percent of Idaho residents between the ages of 25 and 34 to hold a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2020. (About 19 percent of area residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher — lower than the nearly 26 percent state average and 30 percent national average.)

The goal of more than doubling the college graduation rate across the state in an eight-year period is far from realistic, but even if it were acheivable, in the Magic Valley it isn’t logical to push everyone in this direction if our employment scene won’t reward them on the other end with the right job after graduation.

With real-time data available on the success of our graduating students, the key is to use it. Those making economic development decisions for our area can see who we’re losing to better opportunities and which businesses we need to attract to keep our best and brightest. Students can look at who is finding work locally and decide which degree to pursue or if a trade or technical school is the best approach.

Most importantly, parents and students can make informed decisions about how and where to spend their education dollar. And the state can do the same.


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