Idaho’s colleges and universities are consistently rated among the best public postsecondary schools in the nation. Unfortunately, there is now an effort to weaken our higher education institutions by cutting their funding.

If this effort succeeds it will be more difficult for our institutions to fulfill their mission of educating our state’s next generation of workers, entrepreneurs, farmers and business leaders. If successful, their effort could put Idaho on a downward economic path for years to come.

The stakes are very high for all Idahoans.

Today human talent is the most important driver of economic vitality. That was underscored by a 2019 report Idaho Business for Education and HP Inc. issued in which business leaders said the lack of skilled workers was their No. 1 problem.

Research shows that we need at least 60 percent of our 25-34-year-old workers to hold a postsecondary credential. Trouble is right now only 44 percent do. If we don’t get to a more educated Idaho our existing businesses will not have the talent to grow, it will be more difficult to attract good companies to Idaho, and some of our existing companies may need to relocate to find the workers they need.

Clearly, education is the best investment we can make because of the dividends it pays to the individual who gets it and for society at large.

The average annual earnings for someone with a high school diploma is $38,792 compared to $77,844 for a college graduate. Also, those with a postsecondary credential are less likely to be unemployed and more likely to save society money by relying less on expensive health care and government safety-net programs.

Furthermore, our higher education institutions are an economic engine for our state. Even using 2014 numbers our colleges and universities generated $4.1 billion — equal to 7 percent of the state’s total gross state product at the time.

The research and development our universities conduct provides priceless benefits to our ranchers, farmers, wood products companies, food producers, scientists, business leaders and even governors and legislators. The patents that are created through this research often turn into spin-off for-profit companies that employ many Idahoans.

Ironically, the attack on higher education comes when Idaho’s college and university presidents are cooperating more than ever before and looking to become more efficient and effective. Each reduced their budgets and staff last year. They have worked to consolidate non-academic programs to save money and invest in academics. Last year, they froze tuition for the first time in 40 years and will again if the Legislature funds them adequately. In 2020, Idaho’s colleges and universities had the sixth lowest tuition and fees among the 15 western states.

It’s amazing that these high-quality institutions have done all this even as state general fund support has dropped for decades. In 1980, the state picked up nearly 90 percent of the cost of higher education, while now it barely picks up 50 percent and families pick up 47 percent. Forty years ago, higher education made up 17 percent of the state general fund budget — now it is less than 8 percent.

This lack of state support has hit the parents and students of Idaho very hard in the pocketbook which makes the current talk of reducing state funding even more troublesome.

Instead of trying to weaken our colleges and universities, we should be investing even more in them. After all, they are fulfilling the essential mission of creating a brighter economic future for our students, businesses and for all Idahoans.

• • •

Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.

This guest opinion is supported by Idaho Business for Education, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, the Idaho Chamber Alliance and Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce