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Idaho wants more kids in college

by MAUREEN DOLAN
Staff Writer | April 24, 2010 9:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - One of Idaho's top education leaders compares today's attitudes about higher education to the way they were before the Soviet Union surprised the world a half-century ago by taking the first step, ahead of the U.S., into the space age.

"You know, we've kind of got a modern day Sputnik," said Mike Rush, executive director of the Idaho State Board of Education. "We're getting our tails kicked, and we've got to decide how to deal with it."

"One of the things that I think is absolutely critical for people to realize is that the United States is the only industrialized country in the world with a declining college participation rate."

If things continue going as they are, Rush said the U.S. will fall from first to last place in post-secondary education completion rates in the world.

"I don't know where we want to be ... but I know darn well we don't want to be last because I don't think we can sustain our standard of living at that level of participation," Rush said.

Idaho State Education Board members are focused, he said, on getting more high school students into college and keeping them there.

Earlier this year, Idaho joined what is now a 22-state alliance, Complete College America. The privately funded initiative is aimed at helping states raise their college completion rates.

According to the organization's website, 60 percent of new jobs will require a college education by the end of the decade.

U.S. Department of Education statistics show that 21 percent of North Idaho College first-time, full-time students complete a degree or certificate within 150 percent of the normal program time.

At the College of Southern Idaho, the rate is 16 percent.

Eastern Idaho Technical College, another two-year school with a professional-technical focus, shows a 41 percent graduation rate.

For four-year programs, the University of Idaho has a 57 percent completion rate while Boise State, Idaho State and Lewis-Clark State all trail with completion rates between 25 and 30 percent.

Regarding the low rates at the state's community colleges, Eric Murray, NIC's vice president for student services, said there are people who attend NIC seeking a career and feel they are career ready before they earn a degree.

For students who attend the community college so they can transfer to a four-year program, Murray said they may not need an associate's degree.

"If they can save some money and take two less courses and move on to a four-year university, we encourage them to do that," Murray said.

Sen. John Goedde, chair of the Legislature's Senate Education Committee, said the K-12 emphasis on attending college needs to begin earlier.

"I think it's critical that we get high school counselors and junior high school counselors better educated in the process now," Goedde said.

Allowing students to wait until they're in 11th grade to start taking a hard look at the courses they need for college is too late, Goedde said.

"They need to be focused on that early on, and they need to understand the implications of failing a class that's a prerequisite for another class," Goedde said. "They may never catch up unless they go through some remedial process."

At North Idaho College, 9 percent of the total credits generated by students during the fall 2009 and spring 2010 semesters were for remedial, or below college-level, courses.

One of the ways state board members hope to instill a college-going, follow-through mentality in Idaho high school students is by requiring that schools provide an opportunity for students to get college experience and credits while they are in high school.

Board policy specifies four different options schools can offer: Tech Prep, International Baccalaureate, Dual Credit or Advanced Placement.

Tech Prep programs are very popular, Rush said, but Dual Credit, which gives high school juniors and seniors the chance to enroll in college or university classes for both high school and college credit, is the most common and widely used option.

Regarding the International Baccalaureate program, Rush said although it is one of the options supported by the state, few schools are offering it.

Rush has heard from many schools that although they like IB's academic component, the start-up costs are prohibitive.

Sen. Goedde said that once the program is up and running and teachers are trained, it becomes a more reasonable option.

Students in the Coeur d'Alene School District are able to take IB courses at Lake City High School where administrators project the program's cost will be roughly $24,000 next year.

Rush said these options that allow students to earn college credits while in high school help significantly reduce college costs, which is one of the major barriers to getting young people to go to college.

"The problem is poverty is a huge hurdle," he said.

When it comes to income levels, Rush said that nationally, 60 percent of the persons in the top quartile earn higher education degrees or certificates, while just 7 percent of those at the bottom complete higher education programs.

"The problem is our population growth is primarily in the bottom quartile, so somehow we've got to get better support. It's not just money. It's also a cultural support, family attitudes and all the other things that add up to it."

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