Universities talk priorities with lawmakers, from funding to Common Core

BOISE — Idaho’s colleges and universities are telling lawmakers what their needs are to make higher education, and ultimately the state’s workforce, better. On Thursday afternoon, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College presented their most recent statistics, and in some cases wish lists.

#1 priority: More funding for higher education employees

A big topic around the statehouse this week, and for each presenter, has been upping university and college employee pay to stay competitive with other states and keep educators in the state.

“At the University of Idaho, this is a big issue at our Moscow campus, because we’re just seven miles away from Washington State University, which pays higher and is taking our employees. We lost 29 to the Washington State University, including some key people. So this is a big issue for us,” University of Idaho Interim President Don Burnett said.

Lewis-Clark State College (LCSC) President Dr. J. Anthony Fernandez said the most critical need is faculty retention, showing a graph that professors have the biggest gap in pay compared to their peers, with around a $20,000 difference.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde (R – Coeur d’Alene) said he’s hearing from all colleges and universities that funding is the key issue for them right now. He says it makes sense when considering what they’ve lost in recent years.

“When we went through our recession, higher ed got the hardest hammer. We have no constitutional requirement to fund higher education. We do with K-12. So to keep the K-12 system whole, or as whole as we could, we robbed from higher ed. It’s probably time to start refilling that bucket,” Goedde said.

#2 issue: College students need better preparation in high school

Every presenter talked about needs for improving readiness for college. Fernandez said at LCSC, their average student had a 920 on the SAT, 20 on the ACT. When asked how to bring that up, Fernandez said standards for graduation from secondary education need to be increased. He said Idaho Core Standards match what he wants to see in students coming to the university.

Burnett said at the University of Idaho, like at every higher education institution, they need to have students come in ready to go to work on higher-level courses. Burnett quoted statistics that a quarter of Idaho students at four-year universities, and three-quarters of students at community colleges, need remedial courses in skills that should have been learned in high school.

“The main thing from our standpoint is that students that come to post-secondary institutions need to be prepared to do post-secondary work. Otherwise, taxpayers are paying twice for some of the same education,” Burnett said. “The educational process gets elongated while people take remedial classes. And if they don’t take the remedial classes, and complete their other requirements, if they drop out. Then if they get a job, and that’s problematic, the employer’s going to pick up the slack with on the job training.”

Burnett specifically mentioned Common Core, noting all presidents of four-year institutions signed a letter urging support of the Idaho Core Standards last year.

“We respect your expertise and your judgment in setting public policy for education, but the future will not wait,” Burnett told the committee. “There is wide consensus on one fundamental point: Students need to arrive at Idaho’s post-secondary institutions ready to do post-secondary work.”

With university support, will Common Core be revisited

When asked if there is an appetite to reverse some of the Idaho Core Standards with legislative action this session, Goedde said he knew there would be more discussion, but it seems to be the testing that would measure the core standards that would be the focus of any changes.

“I think there’s general support of the standards themselves,” Goedde said. “The issue’s become around assessment and around the inability to tweak the standards. There’s concern for that, and I share that concern. But there’s no question in my mind that setting higher standards is going to incite Idaho’s students to strive harder, and we won’t have the same remedial problem we have now with our four year institutions and even our two year institutions.”

Another hot topic: Making credits better transfer school-to-school

During the Idaho State University presentation, Senator Dean Mortimer (R-Idaho Falls) asked about adopting common standards for numbering and requirements on general education courses, as it would relate to transfer credits.

ISU Provost Laura Woodworth-Ney said those ideas are being worked on. While renumbering would be a quick fix, she says it wouldn’t solve transfer issues. She says they need to work on moving toward a competency-based approach that would mean creating uniform levels that would be achieved to complete general education courses.

An additional hurdle exists when a student may have the correct general education courses, but not the correct prerequisites to move into a specific program.

If credits don’t transfer, students risk losing time and money if they choose to change schools mid-degree. Senator Goedde says it’s a topic he knows interests a lot of students and parents, himself included.

“I remember when my daughter went from the University of Idaho to North Idaho College, she had an English credit that didn’t transfer. You’d sure think that a four year institution’s English credit would go down to the community college level,” Goedde said. “So there’s that problem, and certainly the provost from ISU expressed it very well, that in particular career tracks, those courses have transferability problems. Those aren’t gen ed, those are specific.”

While universities work with the state on that issue, at this point, lawmakers and university officials don’t feel the legislature needs to change anything.

“I don’t think it requires being addressed by the legislature. It sounds like there’s a process ongoing now. If that process doesn’t yield results, there may be another review by the legislature,” Goedde said.

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