Task force offers options for Idaho education | Northwest

BOISE – A gubernatorial task force offered a dozen ideas Friday to improve Idaho’s higher education system, including more money for scholarships, creating a statewide “digital campus” and outcome-based funding.

The 35-member group, which includes representatives from business, education and the Legislature, was appointed in February. Its mission was to evaluate how best the state can meet its post-secondary education and workforce needs.

The task force wrapped up its work Friday, approving a dozen recommendations.

Among its first actions: acknowledging that the state needs more time to meet its 60 percent go-on goal.

For years, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and education leaders have said 60 percent of all Idahoans ages 25 to 34 will have to have some sort of post-secondary degree or training certificate by 2020 in order to meet the state’s workforce needs.

There’s been little progress toward reaching that goal, though. While the task force agreed 60 percent is still a good number, it recommended pushing the target date back to 2025. The group also offered a road map for achieving the goal, which included specific performance measures.

“This isn’t going to be three years of debate and then a Hail Mary pass,” said Bob Lokken, chief executive officer of WhiteCloud Analytics and co-chairman of the task force. “It’s going to take constant improvement every year to meet the goal.”

Nevertheless, the level of annual improvement needed to achieve the goal actually is quite modest, Lokken said. For example, a 1 percent growth in student numbers – coupled with minor capacity expansions and a 0.5 percent improvement in the number of degrees and certificates the institutions award per full-time employee – would enable the state to hit the 2025 target date.

“It gets us to a healthy alignment (between the number of degrees awards and the needs of Idaho’s economy) going forward,” he said. “These are very achievable goals across the system.”

One capacity expansion option the task force was most enthusiastic about was to create a statewide delivery system or “digital campus” that would allow adults and students to access online courses and training modules whenever and wherever they wanted.

“We feel this is a game-changer for Idaho,” said State Board of Education President Emma Atchley.

For example, Atchley noted that the city of Salmon has a small digital learning facility where people can come and use computers for online courses.

“That’s what we want to see across the state – a place where people can come to access education at any time, with a local technical support person,” she said.

Bert Glandon, president of the College of Western Idaho, was very supportive of dual credit courses and online opportunities. However, they have substantial revenue implications for the institutions. Dual credit classes cost $65 per credit for high school students, he said, compared to $139 for the same class at a community college and even more at a four-year institution.

“That’s a huge cost-savings for students and taxpayers, and a huge revenue reduction for the institutions,” Glandon said. “There has to be some sort of adjustment made, some balance to make it work. I know what the cost is for CWI (to offer an online course), and $65 doesn’t cover it.”

The task force also recommended increased funding for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship program.

The $2,000 annual scholarships are available for Idaho students who have at least a 3.0 GPA; however, the Legislature currently only appropriates enough money to cover about a quarter of the applicants. The task force wants to lower the threshold to a 2.5 GPA and have lawmakers fund all eligible applicants.

“There are a lot of students out there who would have success in college, but there’s not enough dollars for scholarships,” Atchley said. “We need more money, because a lot of kids aren’t being served – and the kids we need to reach aren’t the 4.0, 3.0 (GPA); it’s the ones who are a little lower down.”

Retired school administrator and state Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, said increased funding for scholarships is “critically important.”

“Right now we’re at a 48 percent (go-on rate). If we want to get to 60 percent, we need to do things substantially different,” he said. “We have to go after groups and kids who right now aren’t engaged, and finances are the biggest barrier that keeps them from going on.”

Another major proposal was to provide a small amount of “outcome-based” funding – around $10 million per year – to reward institutions and encourage them to improve. For example, if they increase the number of degrees or certificates they award, compared to a rolling three-year average, they would be eligible for additional funds. They also could earn bonuses for such things as improving on-time completion rates or for serving at-risk populations.

A final report including all the task force recommendations will be presented to the governor by Oct. 1.

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