Friday, August 1, 2014

#172 - Idaho Dumbing Down or Just Needing to Take a Different Look?

New figures indicate that the percentage of Idaho high school graduates who go on to attend college dropped from 2012 to 2013. The decline occurred in spite of – or perhaps because of – the state’s somewhat lame Go On campaign aimed at encouraging more grads to pursue post-secondary education.

According to the story at Idaho Ed News, a little more than half of Idaho’s high school graduates in 2013, 52 percent, opted to continue their education. The Idaho State Board of Education president says an improving economy may be partly to blame, with grads opting to work now and save money to attend college later. It’s a nice thought, but I suspect it has little to do with the actual reasons.

The same Idaho Ed News article also seems to suggest that Mormon grads putting off college until they complete a mission may also play a part in the decline. The idea that God told me to wait before attending college doesn’t seem to me to carry much validity, either, despite the large Mormon population in Idaho. Especially when the article only attributes that reasoning to the decline in the one Idaho country where the branch campus of Brigham Young University is located. As if graduates in that county would only consider attending that university.

The article’s loudest alarm bells are reserved for the declining numbers in Idaho’s two largest school districts, declines that took place despite their proximity to two and four-year colleges. The fact that both the two and four-year schools in and around these districts have, rightly or wrongly, reputations as commuter schools more likely to attract older students than recent grads is ignored.

Also ignored are what I think may be the main reasons for the decline. First is the fact that Idaho, despite the growth of Boise and the surrounding area, remains a largely rural state dependent on the land for its people’s livelihood. For better or worse, many in agriculture or other trades may not see the need for continued formal education after high school.

The next fact, I suspect, is the fact that Idaho does not allow much overlap in educational offering between the state’s institutions of higher learning. As a result, many programs may only be offered at a single school. Given Idaho’s position near the bottom in terms of per capita income, coupled with the rising tuitions cited by the article, this restriction may put higher education out of reach for some.

Finally, with the shift in focus in recent years by many colleges toward more business-oriented offerings, colleges have come to more closely resemble vocational schools. The latter, because of more accelerated programs, can be less expensive. Plus, they are often easier to get into.

So what is the solution? It is doubtful that one size fits all. However, it is equally doubtful that Gov. Butch Otter’s “spectrum of educational opportunities” (whatever that means), with “an emphasis on reading in the early grades and a rigorous high school curriculum” will translate into “college or professional-technical training and completion.” Idaho, along with a number of other states, is already trying that with Common Core. Yet the numbers are still falling.

Idaho needs to try to think outside the box, which leads back to Otter’s “spectrum of educational opportunities.” The first opportunity is for Idaho to stop trying to remake all higher education into expensive, glorified vocational schools that no longer put money, let alone emphasis on anything other than business, engineering, and science. Yes, those are important fields, but the arts and humanities are no less important.

I might argue the arts and humanities are even more important than business fields in terms of living. It is through the arts and humanities that a person learns discernment, critical thinking, and appreciation of life outside of work, as well as the ability to articulate one’s thoughts in spoken and written word. A broadening rather than a narrowing of one’s education leads to a balanced and well-rounded mind and spirit. It is people such as this who will best be equipped to survive, if not thrive in an increasingly demanding and ever changing social and economic landscape.

The next thing I think Idaho should do is look more at forming partnerships between various schools so that students in one part of the state do not have to move to another part of the state to pursue a particular program of study. This could be conceivably be done through online courses taught with an on-campus component or support person at the student’s home school. It could also involve online or teleconference discussions with student’s on the campus of the school where the program is centered.

The same kinds of partnerships could also be explored between four-year schools and vocational schools, whereby vocational students might take classes in the arts and humanities but geared more closely to the needs of the student’s chosen field. Regardless of whether a person is studying to be a lawyer or an auto mechanic, the need for critical thinking skills remains as does the need for exposure to areas outside the person’s chosen field, especially if those areas can somehow be related or tied back to that field.

Something else that would definitely be out of the box would be for at least some of Idaho's colleges and universities to develop programs for the developmentally disabled. These programs could be both degree and non-degree programs designed to help these people live more independently and also help them pursue areas and fields they are interested in at their own pace and with the necessary accommodations to allow them to succeed. As the father of an autistic son, I admit to an ulterior motive here, but I also think such programs could bring a new clientele to college campuses and also cause education to be looked at in a different light, by administrators, educators, and students alike.

I also think Idaho has an opportunity to lead in the area of making money for college more affordable to prospective students. I find it no coincidence that college tuitions began to rise more rapidly and more often once private lenders were given more leeway and freedom in what they charge for student loans. Some sort of state-private partnership, whereby the state given some financial benefits or tax breaks to lending institutions offering reduced interest rates (say five-percent or less) on student loans, is one possibility.

Another possible component of this could be an Idaho version of AmeriCorps. In such a scenario, the state might pay a portion of the student’s tuition or make a student’s loan payments for a time in return for a specified length of service by the student in a part of the state where the student’s talents might be most useful or needed. This might also work as part of a beefed-up internship program.

Any or all of these will require forward thinking and a willingness to risk failing. Because of that, I don’t expect Idaho to explore, let alone implement any of these suggestions. Which leaves me with my last and easiest to implement idea. Reduce the focus on recent high-school graduates and turn attention to those considering a return to school and those who perhaps need additional education and/or retraining.

At least one of Idaho’s four-year universities is already referred to as a “commuter school,” although most of those who use the term do so in a derogatory manner. However, just as some people don’t need or aren’t meant to go to college, others don’t need or aren’t ready to go to college right out of high school. I tried and failed simply because I was not ready. 15 years later when I decided I finally was ready, I went back, earning a B.S.Ed. and then a MA in English. That 15 year interval allowed me to gain some maturity, as well as an appreciation of what I was learning, and I suspect it made me a much better student.

Since the population as a whole is aging, it is likely that the greatest potential for growth in Idaho’s colleges will not come from those fresh out of high school but from those who already have a few years out of school (or more) and perhaps a few jobs already under their belts. That “real world” experience will allow students to bring a different perspective to the classroom, and the added maturity that often comes with age may allow them to better appreciate the new ideas that the classroom can bring to them. It’s worth a shot.

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