THE STATE SONG “HERE WE HAVE IDAHO” GETS IT RIGHT. Proclaiming the joys and benefits of the Gem State, it depicts a state where “ideals can be realized” and where citizens will have a legacy to prize. Surely, a strong educational system is central to realizing those ideals, and it is with that goal in mind that ACTA offers this report, the sixth in a series of report cards on state higher education systems around the country.
This report examines Idaho’s undergraduate-degree-granting colleges and universities. We focus on what students are learning (the curriculum), whether the marketplace of ideas is vibrant (intellectual diversity), how the universities are run (governance), and what a college education costs (affordability). In each case, we evaluate Idaho institutions in light of studies and national best practices, awarding a Passing or Failing grade.
Are students learning the things they need to know? Is there a healthy exchange of ideas? Are trustees upholding the public trust? Are taxpayers getting good value for their money? These are the kinds of questions to which the people of Idaho deserve answers. It is the goal of this report card to provide answers and to help Idaho’s leaders—including the governor, the state legislature, and the trustees—find the way forward at this challenging time.
Our hope is to help Idaho become a national standard bearer for excellence, accountability, and efficiency in higher education.
The first section focuses on general education—those courses, usually completed within the first two years of a bachelor’s degree program, that ensure a broad education and college-level skills critical to workforce participation. We found that Idaho’s institutions of higher education neglect many foundational subjects. Some campuses require crucial subjects such as mathematics, English composition, literature, natural science, and foreign language, but others do not; and none of Idaho’s institutions requires a foundational class in economics or U.S. government or history.
In the second section, we focus on intellectual diversity, a value that lies at the very heart of the educational enterprise. In the simplest terms, intellectual diversity means the free exchange of ideas. According to a scientific survey of students we commissioned, it is in trouble in Idaho. Students report violations of professional standards—including perceived pressure to agree with professors’ views in order to get a good grade—and exhibit a lack of awareness of their rights and how to ensure those rights are respected. Many institutions across the country have taken responsible action in recent years to guarantee intellectual pluralism. Idaho’s institutions should join them.
The third section turns to governance and actions by the Idaho State Board of Education. Board members are responsible for the academic and financial well-being of the state’s institutions and for safeguarding the public interest. Our examination of board minutes and other publicly available materials suggests that, generally, the board has done a satisfactory job of following best practices in governance structure. The board meets regularly, discusses substantive issues, and has formulated long-term plans. However, there is room for improvement in their handling of such practical matters as the presidential hiring process, general education, intellectual diversity, and cost—and we hope the board will take action.
Finally, we take a look at cost and effectiveness. This is an area of real concern. On average, increases in tuition and fees at the institutions we assessed outstripped inflation by nearly 20 percent between 2004 and 2009—and too much of that increase is going to administrative costs, instead of instruction.
Measures of effectiveness reveal an alarming picture and the need for greater focus on educational quality: Three of Idaho’s institutions posted a six-year graduation rate of 30 percent or lower, well below the national average. One in three students is dropping out after just one year of college.
Idahoans depend on their universities to ensure students have a functional knowledge of core subjects. They depend on these universities to be places where ideas and opinions are expressed freely and explored with academic integrity. And they depend on the Board of Education to govern prudently and to use resources wisely so that, in the words of the state song, “ideals can be realized” and Idahoans can be ensured a legacy of informed citizenship and lifelong learning.
Our hope is that Idaho’s leaders—including the governor, the state legislature, and board—will use this report card toward those important ends.