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Why Idaho Kids Don't Go to College

And what that means for the Gem State

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The first advertisement a shopper notices when entering Coeur d'Alene's Silver Lake Mall isn't one for spring fashion or Cinnabon. It's the one painted across an entire wall in big, brash deep red, telling shoppers to go to college.

"CARDINAL RED LOOKS GREAT ON YOU!" the ad proclaims, with the North Idaho College cardinal mascot peeking out. "Apply now at www.nic.edu/Apply."

Nearby, in a bright pink Payless ShoeSource aisle, Geoffrey Hess says he actually did apply to North Idaho College, back in 2013. "I had the acceptance letters, I had taken the [ACT] Compass test, had everything squared away," he says. But then his parents kicked him out their house: "I didn't have access to the Internet. I ended up living out of my vehicle."

In the chaos, he missed his financial aid deadline. Instead of school, he ended up working odd jobs, mostly manual labor, often getting paid under the table.

His friend next to him didn't make it to college either. Damian Johnson, decked out in a camo sweatshirt, planned to take just a year off after high school before college. But one year became five. Five years of bagging groceries, pushing shopping carts and manning gas station registers. "It's been rough," he says.

The reasons for missing out on college vary. Just ask the people in this one mall: The employee at the body-piercing parlor says her mom refused to fill out her financial aid information. The young woman walking through the mall arm in arm with her boyfriend says a mental health diagnosis nixed her culinary school plans. The tattooed dad, eating at the food court with his two little blonde girls, says his first daughter was born before high school graduation and work made more sense than college.

Jon Byrum, 25, and his wife, Paris, look through the window of a jewelry store. "Never saw the point of it," Jon says of college. High school, he felt, had mostly been a waste of time. Why would college be any different?

"I didn't know what I wanted to do," he says. "So why go to college, get my general education, get all that nonsense, so I can have an A.A., which means absolutely nothing, and still not know what I'm doing?"

Add all of these reasons together, zoom out, and you've got a problem that plagues most Western states, but especially Idaho. A year after high school, nearly half of Idaho's 2013 high school graduates hadn't enrolled in higher ed. In 2010, Idaho ranked last in the nation in its college-going rate, and it's remained in the bottom five ever since.

You can quibble about the data—some measurements don't account for military service, apprenticeships or Mormons who do door-to-door missions after high school—but it all points toward the same grim conclusion: As Idaho's economy is struggling, its high-tech jobs are going unfilled and the solution—an educated workforce—means that a lot more Idahoans need to start getting college degrees.

Idaho knows this: Since 2013, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation has been pumping out ads calling out the dismal state of Idaho education.

"Look at it this way: For every 10 high-school freshmen, eight will graduate, four will go to college and only one will graduate with a degree," former Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe narrates in warm, earnest tones in one ad. "Let's get to an educated state. Don't Fail Idaho."

The foundation had tried positive ads. For five years, it ran an $11 million "Go On" campaign encouraging students to go to college. They didn't work. Districts, universities, business leaders and legislators have banded together to fight the problem, but after rising briefly, the statewide rate of kids going to college actually declined from 2013 to 2014.

"It alarms me that people aren't more alarmed by this," says Jennie Sue Weltner, foundation spokeswoman. "We're not making the kind of progress everyone hoped we would make."

The question is why.

The Isolated Geography

It was 11 degrees below zero in Pocatello, researcher Jered Hinchcliffe recalls, when he flew into Idaho in December of 2013. Over nearly two weeks, he visited Pocatello, Coeur d'Alene, Boise and Twin Falls. He looked everywhere: leadership classes, malls, a bowling alley, a Boys and Girls Club, a KFC and a Carl's Jr.

He'd been hired by the Albertson Foundation's ad agency to find kids to talk about their plans after high school.

"One of the things we noticed the most, especially for the younger people, is that they all had a plan," says Hinchcliffe. "They all wanted to go to college." But the closer they were to graduation, he says, the less certain and more skeptical they had become.

Brand strategist Jen van Arkel and her colleague followed up with in-depth interviews, the entire thing filmed by a documentary crew. All this to ask: "Why don't more kids go on to college after high school?"

The kids shared their fatigue and frustration with school, the lack of support they felt and the mixed messages they've heard about the value of college. And as she interviewed them, she saw the dramatic disparity between kids with bright academic futures and kids with dim ones. Income mattered. Day-to-day struggles like paying rent or avoiding domestic violence can make higher education the last thing on their parents' minds. Location mattered too.

"We talk to some kids in more rural areas whose families are in agriculture, and they would say, 'My dad didn't go to college, and my grandfather didn't go to college, and they're doing just fine,'" van Arkel says. "So why bother?"

These are places like Bonners Ferry, a town of less than 2,500 near the Canadian border with the lowest per-capita income in North Idaho. A year after 2013's high school graduation, only 41 percent of Boundary County students enrolled in college, one of the lowest rates in the state.

"A fair amount of that is probably just financial hardship and difficulties," says Tim Gering, principal of Bonners Ferry High School. "This is a very economically depressed area."

As a rule of thumb, poor, rural communities struggle to send their kids to college: A National Student Clearinghouse study of the class of 2013 showed high-income suburban high schools had college enrollment rates nearly 50 percent higher than low-income rural schools.

Idaho is especially rural and poor. Legislators cringed last year as the Idaho Department of Labor reeled off 2012's economic rankings. Idaho: last in the nation in average wages, per-capita income and wage increases; first in percentage of minimum-wage workers.

The pothole-pocked roads and isolated communities in Idaho can hit education hard. For the more than 400,000 Idahoans living rurally, it's easy for college to seem out of reach.

Take Chad Copenbarger, for example, a recent high-school grad from Wendell, north of Twin Falls.

"I did go to college for two weeks and had enough of that," Copenbarger says. During those two weeks, he had to juggle classes, work and the distance between. He drove his used Chevy pickup from his jack-of-all-trades job in the city of Wendell a half-hour to the College of Southern Idaho, and then the half- hour back.

"I liked the class. I liked to learn how to weld," Copenbarger says. But gas alone, he estimated, was costing him $100 every month: "I couldn't make what I was spending." So for now, he's dropped his college plans.

Idaho, filled with federal lands, has very few colleges. In fact, for most of its history there were only two comprehensive community colleges in the entire state. Until 2009, even Boise didn't have one. (Idaho actually is in the middle of the pack in sending students to four-year colleges—it is with community-college attendance that Idaho is in dire straits.)

A look at state data shows that isolation and poverty are hardly the whole story, however. Chart Idaho's "go-on rates" by how well schools are funded, or by the poverty level, and the result looks like a shotgun spread. No obvious correlation. There's another factor at play, something elusive to define and unique to each community: culture.