Getting Idaho students over education hurdles

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Chuck Staben Guest Opinion

Many of us in higher education and across Idaho’s education system have spent a lot of time in recent years working to get more of Idaho’s students to go to college. In today’s economy, we all know how important postsecondary education is for individual success, and for our society.

But that goal of getting more students into the higher education system means nothing if we do not also have a goal of getting those students out of the system, graduated and on their way to a better life.

In Idaho, we have lowered the hurdles for accessing an education through statewide initiatives such as dual-credit programs, direct admissions and a common college application. But we also must be proactive about the obstacles that prevent students from finishing their degrees. Our students — and our state — deserve a thoughtful approach to college retention and completion, complementing robust go-on efforts with measures that encourage students to stay on through graduation.

Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, suggests there is not a “student debt crisis” but a “college completion crisis.” Starting college and not finishing often means student loan debt coupled with limited career prospects. Students who complete college — and at U of I, students graduate at rates close to the national average for public institutions — are positioned to benefit from an average $1 million in increased wages over a lifetime.

To achieve more of that success, U of I has invested in pragmatic solutions, including data management tools that track student progress in multiple ways. Rolling out that comprehensive system this spring will connect students with advisers, faculty and other support staff, improving retention rates through timely and effective interventions. Bolstered advising capacity, supported with Complete College Idaho investments, will ensure we connect technology with personal approaches.

We have also improved our career advising and enhanced internship programs, encouraging students to connect with potential careers and employers from the moment they step onto campus. Our Office of Undergraduate Research helps students gain firsthand experience in meaningful research projects. Mentorship continues to be a hallmark of the U of I academic experience. Students with these high-impact experiences are more likely to graduate.

Something is clearly working — our first-to-second-year retention rate rose from 77 percent to 82 percent this fall. We are excited to continue building on that.

Other aspects of college completion invite a systemwide approach. A key component to completion is financial aid, and Idaho’s state-based financial aid programs are limited. The state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, Idaho’s primary need- and merit-based program, has a pool of $10 million, a laudable figure that unfortunately does not reach students below about a 3.5 GPA and is administered too late in the year to be packaged with entering aid for freshmen. The University of Idaho offers more than $25 million in scholarships annually, but continued investment in complementary support from the state will allow aid to reach more deserving students.

Increasing degree and certificate rates for Idahoans is an important cultural change. Like most cultural changes, we must make continued, consistent efforts on multiple fronts to achieve important goals. In a rapidly changing global economy with strong demand for highly educated employees and citizens, Idaho cannot proceed on only one front.

Both novel and tested approaches will clear the way so more students complete their degrees. At U of I, we recognize that need and welcome the opportunity to partner with our K-20 system to continue lowering hurdles across the system.

• • •

About the University

of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, a research and Extension center in Twin Falls, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to more than 12,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky Conference and Sun Belt Conference. Learn more at www.uidaho.edu.

• • •

Chuck Staben is the president of the University of Idaho.

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