Two recent reports provide disappointing evidence that Idaho is far from having the workforce needed to create greater economic prosperity in our state, but there is also encouraging news we can build on with the support of key stakeholders.
One study comes from the Lumina Foundation which shows that Idaho has the fourth lowest educated workforce in the country. The other report is from RISE, the Treasure Valley’s Education Partnership, which annually asks graduating seniors what they plan to do after high school.
The Lumina report indicates we are miles away from reaching the state’s goal of having 60 percent of our 25-34-year-old workers holding a postsecondary credential by 2025.
Although Lumina uses slightly different criteria than the state, its report says that only 40.7 percent of working adults in Idaho hold a postsecondary credential, lower than all states except Alabama, Nevada and West Virginia. By comparison, Utah has 52 percent of workers holding a credential.
Thirty-seven of Idaho’s 44 counties have workforces with fewer than 40 percent of workers holding postsecondary credentials. Latah and Madison with 57 percent and 56 percent respectively are the most educated counties in our state.
The RISE study, which surveyed nearly 4,000 graduating seniors in southwest Idaho last spring, shows that 65 percent of students planned to pursue a 2- or 4-year college degree. But previous RISE surveys showed that fewer than half show up on campus in the fall.
The RISE study hints at what’s behind the big gap between students’ aspirations and lack of follow through.
Asked what “help” they need to start the “next phase” of their lives, 43 percent of seniors said they need money for college and 16 percent said they need help with financial aid. Despite still working on a plan to finance college, 75 percent said they do not want to incur debt to further their education.
This points to the strong role the lack of money plays in our state’s low go-on rate. Students want to go on, but too many are still figuring out how to pay for college as they graduate from high school. It’s not surprising then that student aspirations fade when they run into the reality of paying for postsecondary.
We adults — parents, business leaders and legislators — have an opportunity to respond to this problem and assist students in helping us achieve the 60 percent goal.
Parents need to understand that their children’s economic future depends on getting a postsecondary credential and encourage them to get one. They also need to start early to figure out how to help their children pay for education.
A disappointing 5 percent of eligible children, 34,035 out of 452,382, in our state have 529 savings accounts created by their parents or others. Having parents create a 529 account when their child is born or when they enter school would be a giant step toward easing the financial challenges students face when graduating from high school.
Employers could help by encouraging employees to create 529 accounts, or better yet make it easy for parents to deduct contributions from their paychecks or even match their contributions.
The Legislature must do its part too. This year Governor Little got $7 million more dollars for Opportunity Scholarships, which will help hundreds of students attend, but lawmakers tapped the scholarship’s reserve account instead of putting new money behind the effort. This potentially can make things worse down the road unless new money is added.
What’s scary is even this increase in scholarship money only passed the House 38-30, with seven out of 15 House Education Committee members voting against it. Surprisingly, 20 of the no votes came from lawmakers who represent community college districts or communities where 4-year higher education institutions are a mainstay of the economy and students their lifeblood.
This raises the question: How can we help students get the skills they need to qualify for a family-sustaining job or build the workforce our economy needs if we can barely pass an increase in scholarships that make postsecondary affordable?
Unless things change, don’t be surprised if next year and the year after that Lumina once again finds that Idaho is a caboose at the end of America’s workforce development train, with the dire consequences this would spell for our state’s economy, our children’s future and our quality of life.