If you attend an Idaho college or university, it’s more likely than not you won’t graduate. Meanwhile, state officials are pushing to achieve the goal that by 2020 at least 60 percent of young Idaho adults receive a college degree or certificate. This is akin to filling an apartment complex while the buildings are on fire.
The four-year graduation rate at the University of Idaho is 29 percent. Said differently, 71 percent of students entering the university won’t see their time and investment rewarded with a degree on time.
That stunning statistic makes the Moscow, Idaho-based flagship university the belle of the ball. According to Idaho State Board of Education data, Boise State University, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College have four-year graduation rates of 15 percent, 13 percent, and 8 percent, respectively. Given six years to matriculate, a majority of students at the University of Idaho, 57 percent, will receive a degree. But six years is still not enough for students at BSU: The extended timeframe produces a graduation rate of just 38 percent. Likewise, ISU clocks in at 30 percent and LCSC at 21 percent.
Such statistics put Idaho's public university graduation rates as the fourth-worst in the country, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Even when accounting for public and private universities, the National Center for Education Statistics ranks Idaho as tenth from the bottom.
Some argue that those graduation rates don’t tell the whole story. BSU spokesman Greg Hahn asserts, “[the reported] rate doesn’t count students who start part-time, or any who return to college after a hiatus. It ignores transfer students, like those who start at the College of Western Idaho.” (For full disclosure: Hahn is my former cellmate at the Idaho Statesman’s now-defunct Statehouse bureau.)
However, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center uses more comprehensive data that accounts for transfers, yet still suggests that Idaho's overall public and private college completion rate is just 45 percent.
The Idaho State Board of Education says the graduation rates are worrisome. To address the problem, the board has implemented remedial education reforms, changes to the way college advising is done, and changes to course schedules to benefit working adults, among other things.
BSU is likewise trying to fix its low graduation rates: Hahn points to a growing freshman retention rate, helped along by ways the school has revamped classes, added students to on-campus housing, and improved financial aid programs.
ISU contends that the fact it has more Pell Grant students than its peers is a factor in the low rates. ISU spokesman Andrew Taylor states, “To improve our graduation rates, ISU has implemented a number of initiatives, including the state’s only tuition-lock program.” Furthermore, ISU students take longer to graduate, he says, noting the eight-year graduation rate is 38 percent.
Idaho’s public colleges and universities may have made strides in getting more students to graduate. However, the get-a-degree reforms have yet to bear the fruit to merit the state government’s myopic insistence that more kids enter the higher education system. Knowing that the vast majority of students will never reap the rewards of an expensive college education and still encouraging young adults to enroll anyway merely sets our state’s high school graduates up for failure, student debt, lost wages, and no degree to show for it.
Wayne Hoffman is president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Research by Janae Wilkerson.