• Marc Johnson

Our Disinvestment in Higher Education


The United States has been engaged over the last 20 years or so in a systematic disinvestment in higher education. It may be the least understood and most profound economic issue we face.

Google “disinvestment in higher education” and you’ll find it is a story in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Iowa, California and nearly everywhere else.

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis was part of a panel at Montana State University recently. He talked, as he always does, about the connection between a growing – in quality and in students – higher education system and a vibrant economy.

As reported by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “Nellis said one of his biggest challenges as a leader today is communicating to the public how important the university is, at a time of state ‘disinvestment in higher education, at a time we’re losing our competitiveness in the world.'”

The University of Idaho, along with other state institutions, the newspaper noted “has had a 23 percent cut in state funding in two years, and it’s worse in California, Washington and Oregon.” State universities, Nellis said, are “critical to economic development and quality of life.” Exactly.

(Full disclosure: my firm has a long-time relationship with the University of Idaho and two family members are grads.)

As much as the state of Idaho needs to step up its funding game, the need to improve higher education attainment – the numbers attending and completing postsecondardy education – is a critical national need that is profoundly effected by public and private spending on higher education. According to the Lumina Foundation, an Indiana-based outfit committed to improving the percentage of Americans with some higher education, less than 38% of us in 2008 had a two or four-year degree. Lumina’s goal is to get that number to 60% by 2025, but at the current pace we’ll never make it.

Lumina pegs Idaho’s current percentage meeting the two or four-year goal at less than 35%, nearly three percentage points below the national average. Every state bordering Idaho, except Nevada, is doing better. Some states, like Washington – 42% with some postsecondary degree – are doing substantially better than Idaho.

Why is it so important to get more Idahoans – and Americans – in postsecondary education and on a path to a degree? Another recent study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce provides the answer. By 2018, 61% of Idaho’s jobs will require some postsecondary education. The math here is easy, if disconcerting – no skilled workforce, no 21st Century jobs.

Idaho’s task of improving postsecondary performance is even more daunting when you consider that our high school dropout rate remains unacceptably high at about 23% and the number of Hispanic youngsters, one of the fastest growing segments of Idaho’s population, who don’t make it through high school is even more unacceptable. So too the number of Hispanic youngsters who don’t go on to higher education. Other recent analysis in Idaho shows that we can’t even agree on how to calculate the dropout numbers. Not a particularly encouraging fact.

While the U.S. struggles to improve higher education attainment numbers, the rest of the world is catching us in what has always been a reliable strength – science, technology and engineering. China and Korea, to name just two global competitors, are granting engineering degrees at five times the U.S. rate and university research by these rapidly developing economic competitors is leaping ahead with much of the research funded by the private sector.

Boise State University’s wise and politically savvy president, Bob Kustra, recently called for an Idaho Consensus to “appreciate and support higher education.” Kustra is precisely correct. The Idaho higher education leadership, the political class, the Idaho business community, alums and everyone who cares about the economic and cultural future of Idaho need to get it together. We need a consensus about what to do, what to spend, where to invest and how to compete.

It is an old cliche, but that doesn’t mean that its not true, to say that Idahoans can wildly value the football accomplishments of Boise State’s Broncos, but can’t seem to muster anywhere near the same enthusiasm for an equally accomplished higher education system backed by a smart investment and attainment strategy.

No football in Korea or China, I guess, but if we keep calling the same plays here those skillful and aggressive competitors are just going to run up the score. No one is going to like that game plan or where we’ll rank in a intellectual poll that will mean a lot more than who plays for a national championship on the gridiron.

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