BOISE — Idaho’s new Dream Team of college and university presidents offered an impassioned defense of higher education this week.

During their annual meeting with the joint budget committee, they spoke about their mission to improve lives and their desire to expand access. They cited the long-term physical and financial benefits of post-secondary education.

“A degree in higher education will make you healthier, wealthier and wise,” said University of Idaho President Scott Green. “All the studies show, if you have more education, you’ll live longer. You’ll make more money — over $1 million more during your lifetime. You’ll pay more taxes, and you’ll be more engaged in your community. So higher education does improve lives. It’s very important to me that we get that message out there.”

They never directly challenged the governor’s recommendation to cut $9.2 million from their budget this year and next, or his proposal to leave another $6 million in employee raises and occupancy costs unfunded.

The unspoken message, though, was that investments in higher education pay big dividends, and that failing to embrace that perspective would be devastating to Idaho.

Lawmakers seemed to appreciate the presidents’ enthusiasm, as well as their forbearance in criticizing the Legislature and the governor.

What was most striking, though, was their reaction to Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton. She spoke about cutting overhead and redirecting resources to programs and student services; she also highlighted steps she took last fall to prepare for potential budget cuts.

That included asking administrators — as well as her own office — to plan for 2, 5 and 7 percent reductions.

“The president’s office is me and one other person, an assistant,” she said. “There’s no chief of staff, no government affairs person. The only way my office could achieve a 7 percent reduction is to furlough myself.”

That was exactly the kind of thing lawmakers wanted to hear.

“I really appreciate you sharing these management ideas,” said Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville. “That’s probably the best management scheme we’ve heard regarding these financial cutbacks. I want to give you credit for that effort.”

Sen. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, was so impressed he wanted to spare the college from some of the cuts.

“There’s no real tiering (management layers) in her administration,” he said. “It’s basically her and then the teachers. I think we need to be very careful when we look at LCSC and not get so tight (with funding) that it negatively impacts the college.”

Such reactions suggest it isn’t the value of higher education that’s in question at the Statehouse, so much as the delivery mechanism.

Justified or not, some legislators see higher education as a vast, bloated bureaucracy that demands ever-increasing resources to pay ever-increasing administrative salaries. The institutions waste money on facilities, academic navel-gazing and feel-good (i.e., liberal) initiatives that provide minimal benefit to students. They are not nimble or responsive.

The presidents did a good job of countering that narrative, both by highlighting their workforce training partnerships and their increased emphasis on student support systems.

Nevertheless, their own performance measures point out how illusory the higher education value proposition can be for many students: Since 2016, the four-year graduation rate at most public colleges and universities in Idaho hasn’t exceeded 30 percent, or 50 percent for six years.

In other words, more than two-thirds of their customers fail to complete a degree in four years, and less than half finish within six years.

UI was the only exception to that: Its latest four- and six-year graduation rates were 36 and 59 percent, respectively. For LCSC, the numbers were 18 and 31.

Green and Pemberton both defended the results. Green said the biggest factor in low graduation rates is the good economy, since people can get decent jobs right out of high school. Pemberton said the measurement reflects arbitrary views about how long it should take to finish college.

“Our student body is unique and sometimes takes longer to complete a degree,” she said. “They’re adults, juggling work and life and trying to go to school. We’re proud to serve them at whatever pace works for them, regardless of how it impacts a performance measure.”

In recent years, though, the results have prompted a discussion about “outcome-based” funding, which would link state funding to the number and type of degrees an institution awards.

“Right now, they’re rewarded based on enrollment, whether the student completes a degree or not,” noted Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls.

Horman, who serves as vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, also likened higher education to the retail industry, which is being reshaped by online competition. She encouraged the presidents to continue their efforts to be nimble and “meet students where they’re at,” rather than relying on the traditional, infrastructure-heavy view of higher education.

“They need to make some hard decisions, in the context of doing what’s best for students,” Horman said. “That’s what will ensure their long-term success.”

Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee said that message has been received.

“One of the things we will not become is an example of the way things used to be,” he said. “I’ve heard the concerns that we in higher education need to be good stewards of our money, regardless of the source. We’re going to be better at that, and do it in a way that doesn’t negatively impact students.”

Spence covers politics for the Tribune. He may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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