Idaho’s Public Colleges Face Challenges – Part Two

Part two of a two-part article.

Part one of this article covered the impact of economic pressures on the changing enrollments at colleges and how to increase the number of high school graduates who will go on to postsecondary education.

Not Ready for College

American high schools are graduating many students who are not prepared for college and consequently, much less likely to complete college than their better-prepared peers or take longer when they do graduate. According to the College Board, which writes and administers the SAT examination used by colleges to access candidates’ readiness for college, about a quarter of Idaho’s high school juniors who took the exam in April 2013 were prepared for college based on their scores in critical reading, mathematics and writing. The ACT, another exam commonly required for college entrance, showed only 26 percent of Idaho students hit benchmarks in all four categories—English, reading, mathematics and science.

Unprepared students are enrolled in remediation courses – English or mathematics courses below college level. About 57.4 percent of those entering a two-year college and 19.9 percent of those entering a four-year college in Idaho enroll in remediation courses, according to Complete College America. About two-thirds of students complete the required remedial work, and those who do usually take longer to graduate and therefore take on more student debt. Only 18 percent of full-time students requiring remediation on enrolling in Idaho’s two-year colleges in fall 2005 had earned an associate degree three years later, according to Complete College America. Of those requiring remediation on enrolling in Idaho’s four-year colleges, 20.9 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Dual Credits Increase Chances of Completing College

While many Idaho high school graduates are not prepared for college, others are already earning college credit through dual credit courses. These courses spring from agreements between high schools and colleges and allow high school juniors and seniors to enroll in college courses that simultaneously award college and high school credit.

Dual credit courses accelerate the time it takes students to complete postsecondary degrees or certificates and reduces the financial burden of college. They also give students the confidence that they are ready to transition to college. In 2007 about 5,000 Idaho students were enrolled in dual credit courses. Last year, that number climbed to more than 11,000 students.

Those numbers are likely to soar because the Idaho Legislature last spring voted to decrease the student cost for duel credit courses. The Fast Forward program will cover up to 75 percent of the cost for students to take dual credit classes, college-bearing examinations or professional technical exams. The state will cover up to $200 for a high school junior and $400 for a senior each year. On average, three-credit courses cost $196 so the state will cover $146, leaving the student to pay only $40.

How Long Does a Two-Year School Take?

Although schools are identified as two year and four year, the reality is only 36 percent of students at public colleges graduate in that time, and the longer their schooling takes, the less likely students are to graduate at all. When they do graduate, they have paid more tuition, incurred more debt and lost opportunities to earn money. One reason students are taking longer to graduate is the amount of time they have to spend on remedial classes. Many students are working and going to school part time.

In addition, many full-time students are not taking the 15 credits per semester necessary for graduating on time. Also, overcrowded classes  make it impossible for students to fulfill degree requirements in a timely manner. Many students are earning more credits than they need to graduate, which increases how long they are in school. Some of the excess credits occur because students change their minds about their majors while others are earned because students do not understand what courses they need to graduate. Full-time students in Idaho take 5.4 years on average to earn a bachelor’s degree while part-time students take 6.6 years, according to Complete College America. Full-time students in Idaho take five years on average to earn an associate degree, and part-time students take 5.8 years.

At Idaho’s four-year public schools, 37.8 percent of the students graduated within six years. Of every 100 students, 18.7 completed their degrees at Idaho public colleges compared to 20.5 nationally, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Grad rates for 4 year schools

At Idaho’s two-year public schools, 20.2 percent of the students graduated within three years, and of every 100 students 17.7 completed their courses compared to 14.2 completions nationally in 2010, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Grad rates for 2 year schools

Retention: Preventing Dropouts

To reach enrollment goals, universities must not only increase the number of students who enter but also keep them in school.

Only half of the Americans who enroll in college end up with a bachelor’s degree. Among developed countries, only Italy has a higher dropout rate.

Dropping out of college creates uncertainty about the future, where students are likely to earn considerably less than if they had completed school. It means that they are not likely to get much return on the time and money they invested in attending school, and it often leaves a trail of debt. Dropouts are more than four times as likely as graduates to default on their student loans. For the state and federal governments, which appropriate money for higher education, it also means a loss. A 2010 study by American Institutes for Research estimated states appropriated almost $6.2 billion for four-year colleges and universities between 2003 and 2008 to help pay for the education of students who did not return for their sophomore years while the federal government spent $1.5 billion and states $1.4 billion on grants for those students.

Idaho ranks 46th among the 50 states for retaining students, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. To reduce Idaho’s college dropout problem, the state Board of Education worked with Complete College America and approved a Complete College Idaho plan in June 2012.

The annual U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges include estimates of retention rates. The most recent statistics are the average proportion of freshmen who began college between fall of 2008 and fall 2011 and returned to school the following fall. The retention rates for Idaho’s four-year public colleges were 70 percent at Boise State University, 61 percent at Idaho State University, 51 percent at Lewis-Clark State College and 79 percent at the University of Idaho. The state Board of Education’s 2012 Higher Education Fact Book said, “Institutions that serve larger populations of adult continuing education students (which include a higher percentage of part-time or commuter students with dependents) are BSU, LCSC and ISU. In contrast, UI is primarily a residential campus with a higher population of traditional students (i.e., first-time, full-time freshmen). These differences must be taken into account when comparing retention and graduation rates across institutions.”

Idaho’s colleges are working to increase retention by improving the introduction to college life, providing more counseling and implementing other strategies.

Non-traditional students — unemployed workers, alternative high school students, young single parents and dropouts — face work schedule conflicts, family obligations and geographic and financial barriers and are very likely to drop out. A pilot project to increase retention of non-traditional students, funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, used nationally proven best practices to keep them in school. During the three-year pilot that ended last year, the five participating schools – the College of Southern Idaho, Eastern Idaho Technical College, Idaho State University’s College of Technology, Lewis-Clark State College and North Idaho College – delivered enhanced advising, mentoring and remediation techniques, monitored student progress, and created support groups for almost 500 non-traditional students. After the pilot project, participants had higher grade point averages compared with the general Idaho freshman population. Almost 70 percent of students were retained in programs after the first year — a 500 percent increase over the national average.

Kathryn.Tacke@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
(208) 799-5000, ext. 3984