Students came back to Idaho college campuses this fall.
However, many of these students came from out of state.
The pandemic played a big role, with out-of-state students choosing Idaho and its promise of in-person learning and an on-campus experience.
But Idaho’s shifting enrollment is not a simple result of happenstance. It’s a result of out-of-state students — and choosy, savvy parents — finding Idaho a surprising higher education bargain. At Boise State University, the trend also stems from a decision from several years ago — when a global pandemic was a public health worst-case scenario and a chapter of century-old Spanish flu history — to put student recruiters on the ground in Seattle and Southern California.
While Idaho colleges and universities are discovering growth markets on the West Coast, they continue to find higher education a tough sell close to home — especially when high school graduates can easily find work in their hometowns.
Idaho’s enrollment trends are complicated, but also transformative. The face of the Idaho college campus is changing, this year and likely for years to come.
What the numbers tell us
Most of Idaho’s colleges and universities absorbed enrollment decreases during the pandemic, including a 1.4% decrease from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Idaho schools fared better than many of their counterparts; nationally, last fall’s dropoff came to 3.4%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
None of that diminishes the extent of the Idaho enrollment slide. The losses continued in the spring — when enrollments almost always decrease, compared to fall numbers. By spring 2021, Idaho’s eight two- and four-year public colleges and universities had lost nearly 5,100 students from their pre-pandemic, fall 2019 enrollments.
While the national decline continued this fall — by another 2.6%, according to National Student Clearinghouse research — Idaho’s numbers rebounded. Many Idaho schools erased most of their losses from fall 2020.
Here’s how the universities made up ground:
- At the University of Idaho, fall enrollment rebounded by 4.7%. Out-of-state enrollment grew by 10.6%.
- At Idaho State University, overall enrollment grew by 3.2%, and out-of-state enrollment grew by 7.8%.
- Boise State’s overall enrollment increased by 7.2%, with out-of-state enrollment increasing by 9.1%. A majority of Boise State’s first-year undergrads came from outside the state, for the first time in school history.
In other words, nonresident students made up a disproportionately large share of the enrollment growth. Resident students still make a majority of the universities’ enrollment — but out-of-staters account for a growing share of student populations.
Why did the out-of-staters show up?
The obvious but incomplete answer is the pandemic.
While higher education in other states stayed online in the fall of 2020, Idaho’s colleges and universities reopened, as much as possible. They offered mixes of in-person and online courses — and Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton took it one step further, keeping athletic programs on the field and assuming the role of a masked face of pandemic protocol enforcement. “I felt like the airline attendants who were getting hassled,” she said recently. “I took a fair amount of flak.”
The open-campus approach surely contributed to last fall’s numbers: a 2% increase in out-of-state first-year students, and a 4% increase in out-of-state undergrads. The trend clearly continued this fall — as Idaho schools could point to their campus experience from 2020-21, while schools in other states tried to manage reopening.
But two other factors contribute to the out-of-state enrollment surge.
The first is cost.
A student can come from another state, pay Idaho’s nonresident tuition costs, and still save money compared to in-state tuition at home. The Western Undergraduate Exchange, a 16-state cooperative, further holds down costs, since qualified out-of-state students are charged no more than 150 percent of in-state tuition.
The second is marketing, by Boise State and other state schools. Boise State’s recruiters in Southern California and Seattle represent a decade-long push to expand the university’s brand across the state line.
“What happened with the out-of-state students is not an accident,” associate vice president for enrollment services Kris Collins said. “We didn’t expect our Idaho students or the pandemic to hit us quite the way it did.”
Why did (and why do) Idaho students stay home?
Based on anecdotal evidence, Boise State’s tracking of no-show students, Collins pins it on the pandemic economy. Students or parents either lost jobs, or were forced to pick up jobs. While the pandemic rippled through the national economy — and continues to do so — it has a greater effect in Idaho, where would-be students are more likely to come from low-income households.
Of course, no single factor explains why Idaho students sat out college this year — just like no one reason explains why out-of-state students are flocking to Idaho.
But for years, many of Idaho’s young adults have chosen a job over college. That’s one reason why colleges and universities have struggled to recruit in small-town Idaho, and have struggled to attract young male students from urban centers and rural communities alike.
College can be a particularly tough sell in the 2021 labor market, where many jobs remain vacant, forcing employers to ratchet up their entry-level wages.
“It’s easy to go after a $15-an-hour job,” said Dean Kahler, the U of I’s vice provost for strategic enrollment management.
It’s “short-term shortsightedness,” said Kahler: sacrificing long-range work options and earning power for the opportunity of the moment. But it’s also a stubborn recruiting challenge for Kahler and his colleagues. “We’re seeing students that are just not seeing the value of going on to school.”
In 2020, only 38% of high school graduates went straight to college — a 7 percentage point drop in the state’s go-on rate. State Board of Education officials say they see no signs of improvement in 2021.
“There’s no way that’s not going to affect us,” said Pemberton, who points out that Lewis-Clark draws 80% of its students from Idaho.
A different population, and a different shopper
It’s not just that the out-of-state students come from more affluent households — and are less likely to make college decisions based on the economics of the moment. Out-of-state students’ parents are often college graduates themselves, Collins said. The question isn’t whether they want their kids to attend college; that matter is settled. The question instead is which college is the best fit and the smartest buy.
“It is definitely a different population,” she said. “They are definitely a different shopper than our Idaho families.”
In Idaho, selling the value of college means using “ambassadors,” local residents who can talk about their higher education experience, Kahler said. It means long road trips to rural communities — places such as Driggs, sitting on the Idaho side of the Teton range, almost as far from Moscow and the rolling hills of the Palouse as any community in the state.
Geography presents one challenge. Skepticism presents another.
And skepticism starts young. Kahler recalls fielding a question from an Idaho sixth-grader, who wanted to know if the U of I administrator was just trying to perpetuate his business.
It will be years before this student decides his next move.
“I hope he remembers the conversation. I hope he will explore (college),” Kahler said. “I can’t make them go to school. … They have to be internally motivated.”
Changing with the pandemic
To administrators, the pandemic disproves the old assumption that colleges and universities are slow to evolve. The global public health crisis forced higher education to take a crash course in institutional change, finding new ways to serve students who could not or would not come to a campus.
The new delivery models should help students find the method that works best for them. Ultimately, administrators say this will help more students succeed — and it should pay dividends for colleges and universities as well, as they help students navigate the higher education system.
“Instead of being this site where we expect people to roll down a hill into this spot where an institution is, we’re thinking about new ways to reach out and give students different kind of experiences,” Boise State President Marlene Tromp said recently.
Tromp sees promise in Boise State’s Community Impact Program — a pilot that connects rural online students with teacher mentors. In its first year, the program sparked a 28% enrollment increase from its test communities, McCall, Mountain Home and Payette.
Merely focusing on enrollment numbers, the increases and decreases, doesn’t always account for the evolution in higher education, Tromp said. But she also says enrollments are changing.
The change continued on Idaho campuses this fall — caused only in part by the pandemic.
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