“Education pays.” This well-worn adage certainly applies to Idaho. According to a new Thomas B. Fordham Institute report “Idaho’s Education Earnings Gap,” authored by the Iowa State University economist John V. Winters, the average earnings differential between an Idahoan with just a high school diploma and one with a bachelor’s degree is about $32,000 a year. The earnings gap is even greater for residents of the Boise metro area with a holder of just a high school diploma earning $37,780 less annually than a college graduate.
Worries about the growing income gap between our college educated residents and those without are not new. Idaho Education News has been reporting annually since at least 2016 on our flat go-on rate. “Only 44.6 percent of the state’s high school graduates went straight to college last fall.” The national average is 63 percent.
The challenge of moving our college go-on rate has in fact been at the center of a number of reports and public policy efforts for the better part of a decade. In 2012, then Governor Butch Otter’s Education Task Force set a goal to have “60 percent” of our high school graduates “go on” to some form of post-secondary education. Yet fewer than half actually do go on. Fewer still ultimately earn a college degree. According to a Brookings Institute report from May of 2019, “Among Idaho’s 18-24 year-olds, 6.6 percent have a college degree compared to 10.5 percent for the entire country.”
It is time for Idaho to re-evaluate its “60 percent” go-on-rate target. Trying to get more students into post-secondary education is surely part of the solution, but it is not the only solution. We need a bigger target for success. In Fordham’s new report, professor Winters postulates that K-12 education in the Boise area “may not be providing the most valuable skills for students who skip college and go straight to work.” Winters recommends that state and local policymakers, “take a serious look at how schools are preparing young people for the workforce and how they can do a better job.”
Boise area high schools and school districts need to make the high school diploma worth more by making it more relevant to area employers. Again, this is where Winters’s economic analysis raises some particularly interesting questions and opportunities. Compared to other neighboring metro areas and even compared to the rest of Idaho, “Boise Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has especially low average earnings for high school graduates.” This, Winters continues, “is in strong contrast to the earnings experiences for college-educated workers in Boise who out-earn comparison groups” across Idaho and in other neighboring metro areas.
We have examples in the Treasure Valley of high schools preparing graduates who don’t want to “go on,” but who deserve the opportunity for success in work and in life. In Nampa, the school district has been working to improve its career tech options for interested students. Idaho Ed News reported in 2019, “While 293 of last year’s high school graduates went straight to college, 140 graduates left high schools with an industry certification.” According to the district’s spokeswoman, “This doesn’t help Nampa’s go-on rate, but these graduates are ready to head into the workplace and earn a good salary.” That’s success even if it falls outside the 60 percent go-on target.
In Caldwell this past August, the public charter school Elevate Academy was opened by two veteran CTE educators to provide at-risk students with the education and training necessary to graduate high school and walk into a job in the trades. Jobs that offer a living wage and the possibility of being able to afford a home and family. Other charters and school districts are moving in similar directions. Their efforts should be encouraged even if they don’t move the “go-on-rate” statistic.
Idaho is not alone in trying to better prepare its young people for productive employment who don’t immediately go on after high school. Fordham’s new report provides a number of examples of efforts in states like Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and North Carolina that Idaho can build on and take as opportunities for our students. This is a national challenge.
Idaho’s 60-percent go-on rate target is too narrow and overemphasizing it may very well make us miss other opportunities. It’s appropriate to define success by measuring how many of our students are going on to post-secondary education. But, as Professor Winters’ writes, “Students foregoing college need both applied practical skills to hit the ground running and basic skills.” Success with these students is just as valuable as is the success of those going on and we need to measure it and reward it.