Public higher education in Idaho received low marks from a state report card, titled "Leaders and Laggers," issued recently by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Rick Hess, who served on the research team, noted that the report limited its field of inquiry to state institutions, and "doesn't purport to examine private institutions or issues rated to higher education research."
The state's public four-year postsecondary schools received the worst rankings, placing among only a few other states that received failing grades for "Student Access & Success" and "Efficiency & Cost-Effectiveness." The report shows that although 43.5 percent of Idaho's undergraduate students at four-year institutions are Pell Grant recipients, 12.7 percentage points higher than the national median, the state retains only 67 percent of students into their second year, well below the national median of 77.9 percent. A much smaller 35.8 percent of students graduate within a six-year window, in comparison to the national median of 54.5 percent.
"Although the state is near the top for the percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, Idaho is near the bottom for credentials produced per 100 full-time equivalent undergraduates, completion rate, and retention rate," the report said. "The state’s two-year institutions receive an average grade, with a relatively high percentage of Pell recipients but a low retention rate."
Although these students are disproportionately subsidized in comparison to national trends, the cost for completing a four-year degree is much higher—$76,169 in Idaho, but only $68,140 in the nationwide median. Bill Goesling, a member of the Idaho State Board of Education who sits on the board's Instruction, Research, and Student Affairs Committee, said that he's not familiar with the specifics of the report card, but that he and his colleagues have been working to improve Idaho's higher education enrollment and completion numbers.
"We've got a good goal set up for the institutions, and we're working toward that, to achieve a 60 percent postsecondary education for Idaho citizens 25 through 34, and it seems to be coming together pretty nicely," Goesling said. "We do have a fairly high, I think it's 90 percent plus, graduation rate from high school but only 40 percent goes on to higher education. That's one of the reasons we established the 60 percent goal, and one of the reasons we're working so closely with the superintendent—to ensure that we have a much better, seamless flow of students from high school."
Idaho's two-year public institutions fared a little better in the report card's rankings, earning a C for "Student Access & Success," with retention and completion rates close to the national median. The state's credit transfer policy between schools and its moderate implementation of online learning options also rated C grades, but Idaho's "minimal financial and approval process burdens" garnered an A, signaling the state's openness to new educational providers.
Goesling suggested that part of the reason for Idaho's generally low rankings could be the report card's use of recent data in isolation from a broader context, reflecting the slumping economy and the backgrounds of many undergraduate students in the state.
"I think you have to take into consideration the state that we're in, too," Goesling said. "We're fairly rural, and many of the young men and women that do come to college are called back to the family farm to work, and when times are tough, that happens. So, I don't know how far back the database that they used goes, and was it just a snapshot of what's happening now, or what's happening over the last 10 years?"
In its effort to draw comparisons among all 50 states, the report relied on data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which aggregates statistics from colleges and universities throughout the nation. The report's authors acknowledge that using this data to compare different institutions within and between states can be problematic. "While we are aware of the limitations of IPEDS data, it is the only data set that is consistent and comparable across institutions and states," they wrote.
Other scholars have also noted that information from this data set doesn't always allow a comparison of apples to apples.
"The complex and diverse nature of universities requires careful analysis to ensure that institutional comparisons match reasonably similar universities," wrote University of Florida researcher Denise Gater. "Institutional size and scope, mission, mix of disciplines, institutional control (public/private), presence or absence of a medical school, agricultural extension and/or agricultural experiment station, and data for a single campus versus multiple campuses or systems all have a profound effect on the comparability of universities."
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in conjunction with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, published its own higher education report card in early 2011, giving the state's postsecondary schools failing grades in quality of general education, intellectual diversity and cost effectiveness, but a passing grade in governing structure and transparency of operations.
Note: IdahoReporter.com is published by the Idaho Freedom Foundation.