As voters in Ada and Canyon counties prepare to decide on a $180 million bond for construction at the College of Western Idaho, educators in eastern Idaho are also gearing up for a major expansion of that area’s community college offerings.
Under a plan supported by the Idaho Falls mayor’s office and local groups, Eastern Idaho Technical College, which has long provided classes such as basic education, automotive study, and welding, would be expanded into a community college to prepare the region’s students for higher education.
A study this summer sponsored by Idaho National Laboratory found that the absence of a community college in eastern Idaho is holding back the region’s young people. Not surprisingly, with the nearest Idaho community college 150 miles away in Twin Falls, only 6 percent of the high school graduates in eastern Idaho go on to community college. In the area served by North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene and by CSI in Twin Falls, 30 percent of high school graduates go on to community college. In the area of CWI, which started in 2009, the number is 18 percent.
Supporters of creating an eastern Idaho community college note EITC, which now serves 700 students each year, already has the buildings it needs to accommodate an expected community college student population of 4,000 within six years. EITC has six buildings on 60 acres.
Idaho Falls-area students do have other community college options. CSI has a satellite in Idaho Falls, though EITC President Rick Aman said those students would transfer to the Idaho Falls community college if it’s created, and CSI would close its Idaho Falls operation. Many also head to Utah for community college.
Aman sees the creation of an Idaho Falls community college as a way to provide an affordable means for students to work toward their bachelor’s degrees before transferring to four-year colleges.
The Idaho Falls study, which was carried out by a group called Research & Business Development Center, draws on the unexpectedly fast growth of CWI to predict what would happen in Idaho Falls if a community college opened. It takes into account that CWI opened in a recession – a time when many people decide to return to school to improve their skills – and in Idaho’s most densely populated valley. The Idaho Falls catchment area is about a quarter the size of CWI’s; the study estimates 317 people would enroll for the first semester of the Idaho Falls community college.
It’s not very hard to convince the local education and business community that they need to do a better job of improving the education of Idaho’s workforce. Economists have been predicting for years now that at least some post-secondary education will be critical to securing a decent job in the near future. Idaho hasn’t done a stellar job of helping high school students find their way to higher education; only about half of all graduating seniors go on right away to any kind of post-secondary education.
The role of Aman and many others will be to convince Idaho Falls residents that the area should create a taxing district to pay for the establishment of the community college. The study recommends a property tax rate of $15.00; it says the rest of the cost would come from tuition and other sources such as $5 million allocated by the Idaho Legislature for this purpose earlier this year.
A campaign committee in Idaho Falls is now creating a tax-exempt voter education fund, and Aman expects a vote will be set for May 2017. If the community college is approved by voters and then the State Board of education, trustees will be appointed from the counties in the taxing district.
If the college is created, one of the largest beneficiaries will be the INL , which employs 4,000 people in the area. About 30 percent of the INL’s workers are 50 or older and many have the means and the wish to retire sooner rather than later, said Amy Lientz, director of engagement and partnerships for the U.S. Department of Energy research site. Meanwhile, Lientz said, the INL expects to grow, particularly in the areas of homeland security and energy research, and will need to hire workers such as draftsmen, computer technicians, chemical engineers, materials scientists, and lab technicians. Lientz said INL will have internship opportunities for students, too.
For the last decade at least, Idaho leaders have been tying themselves in knots trying to find ways to steer more high school graduates on to higher education of one sort or another. One thing the success of CWI shows is that many Idahoans knew all along they needed the training. They just didn’t have the opportunity to get it until CWI opened. Providing the opportunity won’t solve all of the state’s workforce training needs, but it’s an important piece of the solution.
Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.