Congratulations to all students across Idaho who recently graduated from University or any workforce training program! In my district, students from the University of Idaho graduated just last weekend. Your hard work and dedication to advancing your education is one of the most invaluable resources to our state. The education that you have received represents your future prosperity and the state of Idaho’s as well. Oftentimes, people forget the importance of training graduates to our overall prosperity and you don’t get the recognition you deserve.
All of these recent graduates will (I hope) spend time celebrating what is likely one of the biggest achievements of their lifetime. Shortly after, they will make their way into the job market. And, once they successfully find a job, we will all benefit from their newfound knowledge and experience.
The only way we can advance economic prosperity in Idaho is with an educated workforce. We need workers who can compete on a national and international level. Idaho cannot have the most groundbreaking ideas made with the most innovative technology if we do not have a trained, educated workforce. Only with that foundation will companies expand their operations in Idaho or want to move operations here. Employers of the 21st century depend on the productivity and creativity of a highly-skilled talent pool.
When we have more companies, we have even more jobs. When we have a lot of jobs that need to be filled, wages increase for the average Idahoan. Increases in wages allow people across the state to buy homes, spend money on local products, invest in businesses, and more. When a state has trained, educated employees available, the state has a really good shot at a stable, flourishing economy. This is especially true in Idaho where there are so many opportunities for improvement. For example, there are currently around 7,000 unfilled STEM jobs in Idaho which amounts to $450 million in unclaimed wages and $24 million in state tax revenue.
Unfortunately, we need a do a much better job of making this happen. Our Go On rate (the number of students going from high school to a two or four-year college) is only 44.6% and has remained that low for several years. Last year, the National Student Clearinghouse Research did a nationwide study on college graduation rates. Idaho was fourth from the bottom with only 50.7% of students obtaining a degree after entering college. Idaho students aren’t lazy, unmotivated, or unwilling to finish their college or training programs. Idahoans simply aren’t starting college. When they do, too many are not finishing. The big reason: student loan debt. It’s just too expensive. The average student loan debt for Idaho graduates is about $27,000 – the third highest among 13 Western States. Given Idaho’s nationally low wages and income levels, you can see why many students don’t want to take on that kind of burden. Instead, unfortunately, our sons and daughters are taking their degrees and leaving the state for better, higher-paying opportunities.
During the Great Recession, funding to keep our students in college or training programs plummeted and has never fully recovered. Meanwhile, tuition in Idaho has increased by 40% over the last ten years. These dueling statistics are exasperating a problem that is leaving many Idaho communities with fewer opportunities, less talent, and an uncertain future.
We need our students to get an education that fuels prosperity, stability and security for our families.
And yet, we have not worked to ensure that happens. We must find a way. Graduation days should mark the beginning of new lives for Idaho’s students in the Gem State, and not the start of an exodus to other parts of the country where opportunities are more plentiful.
Our future depends on it.