TWIN FALLS — Becoming a nurse is a lifelong dream for Jessi Schmitz, but her restaurant job isn’t enough to pay for college tuition.
“I don’t want to be a server my whole life,” Schmitz said. “I want an actual career.”
Cost of tuition motivated her to transfer as a sophomore this year to College of Southern Idaho from Boise State University. The move will allow her to save money and eventually return to a four-year university to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Her aspirations are mostly paid for through several years of work and saving towards a focused goal.
“I grew up on a farm so I’ve always known how to work,” Schmitz said.
Private scholarships helped provide financial stability allowing her to attend school. Without them, she faced an especially onerous path to a nursing certification and would have been forced to take out loans or get a second job.
“I think I would have been stressing about money more than worrying about school,” Schmitz said. “We tend to lose sight of what we’re working for when we’re stressed about money.”
Rising tuition is one of the primary barriers students face in pursuit of higher education. It’s part of the reason only 44.6% of the state’s high school graduates went on to college in 2018. Idahoans represent one of the lowest rates of college-bound graduates in the country, according to the Idaho State Board of Education.
But Idaho wants 60% of its 25- to 34-year-olds to hold some form of postsecondary certificate by 2025 as part of a nationwide goal to meet the demands of an increasingly complex economy. About two-thirds of all jobs in the country will soon require education beyond high school, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
And despite investing more than eight years and millions of dollars, only 42% of Idaho’s young adults hold a degree, certificate or other credential, a figure nearly unchanged since the state adopted the goal in 2012.
A variety of programs are in place to help students focus on career goals, attend school at convenient times and secure necessary financial aid. Many in the Magic Valley are rethinking education and deviating from the traditional path to earning a degree.
Tuition in Idaho is reasonable compared with the rest of the country. In-state students paid $7,590 last year for tuition and fees at four-year institutions, the seventh least expensive the country, according to The College Board, a nonprofit organization that connects students and colleges.
But the cost of attendance rose 11% in the last five years, near the country’s top quartile and well above the nation’s average of 7%. In the last decade, tuition at Idaho’s four-year schools increased by 30%, while per capita income only increased by about 24%, according to the Idaho State Board of Education.
Those numbers don’t yet reflect the decision the State Board was forced to make in April to again increase tuition at four-year universities by about 5% for 2019-20 to cover spending gaps in the Legislature’s budget.
Students and families now cover 46% of the budget at higher education institutions with tuition and fees, up from 7% in 1980, according to the State Board. That means families in Idaho must spend a greater percentage of their money on education than before, increasing the disparity between low- and high-income earners.
New State Board President Debbie Critchfield, an Oakley native, wrote an op-ed in May about her plans to stop frequent tuition increases and ease the burden on families.
“A college education is a great investment for individuals and for our state as a whole,” Critchfield wrote. “We all have a stake in keeping it as affordable as we possibly can. Our students are depending on us.”
Idaho attempts to combat the price of college with the Opportunity Scholarship, which provides money for students who demonstrate financial need and leave high school with competitive grades. But despite recent investments, the scholarship fails to reach all those who qualify and only provides some money to some students.
Schmitz is one of the many qualified students who did not receive a state scholarship last year and won’t again this year due to a lack of spending. About 30% of eligible applicants, or 1,529 students, did not receive the Opportunity Scholarship in 2017, according to a report from the State Board.
This year’s budget includes a record $20.5 million for the program and should reach more students. Still, those who do receive the scholarship only get so much. It provides students with $3,500 per year, or about half the cost of tuition at a four-year school.
“The Opportunity Scholarship just covers tuition and fees at the two-year institutions and covers about half of tuition and fees at the four-year institutions in Idaho,” the State Board wrote in its 2017 report. “Therefore, even students who receive the scholarship will still have to have other sources of funds in order to attend college.”
In order to meet its 60% goal, state officials acknowledged affordability as one of the many barriers students face to completing their higher education.
“These goals can only be met by better serving those students who have typically been underserved — first-generation, low-income, adult, and minority students who may need additional supports and services to succeed,” the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association wrote in a report obtained by Idaho Education News. “The cost to effectively serve these students may be higher, but state lawmakers have an obligation to support these students in order to meet attainment goals and workforce needs in a time of constrained resources.”
A legacy of education
Lee Schmidt graduated from Kimberly High School in the 1930s. An avid reader with a passion for learning, he wanted to go to college and was recruited by administrators from Idaho schools.
But his father wouldn’t let him go and insisted he work as a farmer to make money. When Schmidt died of cancer in 1990, he created an endowment called the Lee Schmidt Scholarship to ensure that kids from Kimberly would always have the means to further their education, said Ray Strolberg, a trustee of the scholarship.
“He didn’t have funding. He didn’t go. And he wanted to provide some means to help these kids go,” Strolberg said. “We like to see the kids not have to drop out for financial reasons.”
Trustees of the Lee Schmidt Scholarship award up to $30,000 annually for graduates of Kimberly High School. Applicants must write an essay and a five-person committee, comprised of community leaders, determines which individuals have the aptitude and focus to continue their education.
Setting aside the time to fill out the application says a lot, Strolberg said.
“When are you going to make $2,500 an hour?” he posed, comparing the time it takes to fill out the application to the grant amount.
Schmitz received the scholarship in 2018 to attend BSU and will receive it again this year at CSI.
Especially as a woman, the ability to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse empowered her to complete school, she said.
“I feel grateful that I can go to school, get a good degree, get a good education and make a living for myself so I don’t have to depend on anyone,” she said.
The scholarship isn’t just for students like Schmitz. Many of its recipients are adults who decide to go back to school, said scholarship trustee Janet Coonts.
“They’ve already tasted what it’s like not to have an education, and they want it now,” Coonts said.
The barrier endured by Lee Schmidt is one the state still faces in developing a well-educated workforce. Many students must weigh the cost of college against a strong economy that provides an immediate, albeit modest, income, he said.
“I think it’s a harder decision in these last few years because they can go out and make quite a bit of money,” Coonts said.
Critics are constantly challenging the value of investing in higher education, but there is a reason adults go back to school, said CSI Vice President Todd Schwarz.
“We still believe in what we’re doing,” Schwarz said. “No matter what their circumstances are, we’re going to try to give them a leg up, and we feel like we have something to offer.”
New to CSI in 2019 is the Weekend College Plus program, an initiative that seeks to meet a variety of schedules by holding classes on nights, weekends and remotely.
The program will allow working adults to return to school to further their education, said Kendal Nield, the program’s director.
“It’s not always feasible for students to quit their job to come to school,” Nield said. “This program allows many students to access college education at a time that’s convenient for them that otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity.”
Students can earn an associate’s degree in the same time frame as traditional students — for the same price. Degrees offered in the program include accounting and bookkeeping, welding, general business, education and general studies.
There are advantages to having a college degree, even for people who already are employed, Nield said.
“It can provide opportunities for them to advance in their careers,” he said. “A lot of students are having to work and put themselves through school; this just provides a way for them to move forward with some more financial stability.”
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Laura Ritz, 63, jokes that she is the perpetual student. She’s attended general education classes at CSI for three years and is saving money to eventually apply to a surgical technician program.
Ritz decided to retire from her job as a paramedic in 2011 following the deaths of her husband and son, but a writing class motivated her to return to school in search of a new passion.
Attending school has been cathartic, Ritz said.
“It inspired me to keep going and to make myself into a different person,” she said. “I was in this perpetual spinning of wheels.”
An initiative at CSI allows any student over 60 to take any credit at the school tuition-free. Without the free tuition, Ritz would have been forced to take out student loans and forgo retirement contributions to pay for an education.
Still, between class fees, books and other expenses, the cost of going to school adds up quickly.
“I’m going to the class. I’m going to come up with it,” she said. “I’ve got a jar of quarters sitting on top of the fridge.”
The value of lifelong learning is shared by many.
Higher education is beneficial for all ages, said Shelly Wright, a professor at CSI and director of the Active Aging program.
“It’s important for all of us to continue to learn,” Wright said. “The more brain cells you put in your bank, when life happens — like age or dementia — you will have more in there to protect.”
Forging a path
Ritz said the general education programs at CSI have allowed her to try several new things and learn about careers she might not otherwise know about. She wasn’t as focused on education when she was going through school, but she’s making up for lost time.
“You’re always in a perpetual state of evolution, and I use that to my advantage,” Ritz said.
Helping students actualize their desired career earlier is a key part of the state’s quest to educate its workforce. The Legislature has spent $21 million since 2015 with the intent of providing districts money to hire college and career advisors.
These positions help students sign up for Advanced Placement classes, apply for college or technical school, and fill out forms for scholarships and loans.
Starting in 8th grade, advisors in Twin Falls help students plan a pathway through high school and into their first two years post-graduation through a career exploration program. They encourage students to focus on career ambitions and provide information on ways to pay for those goals.
Cost is a huge hurdle for families when thinking about college, but many economically disadvantaged students don’t realize they qualify for grants and scholarships that could open doors to further their education, said L.T. Erickson, secondary programs director for Twin Falls School District.
“A lot of it comes down to trying to get students to recognize that they can afford to go to college,” Erickson said.
The positions have been invaluable in helping students think about life after high school, he said.
“We want them to be smart consumers of their postsecondary education. We want them to go on to something that will help them financially in their future.”
There needs to be a focus on a future with not just a job but a career, district spokeswoman Eva Craner said. Higher education helps students work in their preferred industry, whether that’s as a teacher or construction worker or nurse.
The district’s advisors and career programs force students to ask themselves “where do you want to be in life and what pathways do you need to take to get there?” Craner said.
Ahead of the curve
Daniel Ashby is a senior at Canyon Ridge High School, but he will graduate this year with more than a high school diploma.
Ashby is a dual-enrollment student, meaning he earns college-level credits for free while taking classes at his school. He also attends classes at CSI to earn additional credits for a reduced fee.
The program has allowed him to get a jump start on college while saving money and exploring different careers in STEM, Ashby said.
“You go into stuff that you wouldn’t normally go into in a regular class,” he said. “I think it’s pretty cool where I can get all this education stuff for almost nothing at all.”
Ashby is one of more than 6,000 students across the state taking classes in Idaho’s Advanced Opportunities program through CSI, and about 80% of Twin Falls School District students are involved.
Advanced Opportunities allocates $4,125 for every seventh- through 12th-grade public school student in Idaho to participate in higher education programs before they graduate from high school. That money allows students to earn college credits, take Advanced Placement and other college-bearing exams, or earn a trade certification.
Ambitious students can effectively pay for most of their higher education, said Jarred Aslett, CSI’s early college senior coordinator.
“It saves them quite a bit of money,” Aslett said.
The State Department of Education estimated the Advanced Opportunities program saved families $55 million in 2017.
Providing students a way to access certain pathways can help them realize higher education is attainable, Aslett said.
“We’re here to help them do whatever they want to do,” he said. “I think it will absolutely have an impact because we’re able to reach those students who are not sure if they want to go to college.”
Allowing students to visualize a pathway to higher education is a focus of several programs in Idaho.
All public high school juniors take the SAT for free as a way to make students eligible for college. The state’s Direct Admissions proactively admits students into the state’s public colleges if they meet certain GPA and SAT requirements. And the Apply Idaho program allows students to apply to 10 state colleges and universities with one application for free.
Aligning the culture of education with communities
But access to learning is about more than affordability or a free schedule, and if there were a panacea for higher education achievement, it would have been discovered long ago, CSI professor Bill Ebner said.
The state’s 60% goal is really a challenge for higher education institutions to align their culture with the communities they serve, Ebner said.
The traditional model for higher education is catered to “WEIRD” students — western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic — serving only a small portion of students, he said. It lacks flexibility, and is built on a selection process that works to eliminate the interpersonal nuance of learning in favor of those already succeeding, he said.
“If we don’t find solutions that work within everybody, within all contexts, we really haven’t found a solution,” Ebner said. “How do we rethink what education is so we truly can service our community, in all of its diversity, and provide them with an opportunity to fulfill what they all essentially want to do, which is to be successful?”
Education needs to center around self-efficacy, and give students the confidence to approach life’s problems in an effective way, rather than avoid them, Schwarz said.
“We want our graduates to thrive no matter what they’re doing,” Schwarz said.
Institutions are starting to acknowledge that not everybody learns in the same way. To be successful, higher education can no longer solely focus on serving WEIRD students, but instead must strive to ask students, “Who am I and why am I here?” Ebner said.
“Seeds might be planted today that won’t germinate for decades down the road, but that doesn’t mean we wasted anything.”