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Revenue Rivalry: The Tug of War Between Boise State and the University of Idaho

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The Broncos vs. Vandals rivalry, played out on basketball courts and football fields for decades, is nothing compared to the competition for public dollars at the Idaho Statehouse. Idaho's two largest public universities face off each spring before the Legislature's budget-writing committee; and Boise State officials claim they have been shorted more than $52 million annually in favor of their Moscow counterparts.

The budgetary tug of war is practically written into Gem State history.

Since U of I was conceived as Idaho's only land-grant university in 1889, much of the funding from the Legislature has been weighted heavily in favor of the Moscow campus.

Boise State, meanwhile, began as Boise Junior College in 1934 and began handing out bachelor's and master's degrees in 1965. Even now, according to a 2016-2017 state budget analysis, Boise State receives only 63 percent of the funding U of I does on a per-student basis.

Despite that deep divide, Boise State officials insist that when it comes to the funding dispute, they don't want to intensify the rivalry.

"This is not an us vs. them issue, because we value higher education across the board. I want to make that perfectly clear," said Josh Scholer, student lobbyist for the Associated Students of Boise State University.

That said, Boise State President Dr. Bob Kustra still expressed frustration over the $52 million gap.

"There are substantial dollars left on the table, so to speak, from over the years, and I don't know how to get them," Kustra said. "I just don't think that money is ever going to be recovered."

The most recent budget analysis revealed U of I received $9,257 in state funding per full-time enrollment (FTE) student, whereas Boise State received only $5,828.

When multiplied by Boise State's 15,433 FTE students, that $3,433 difference adds up fast. If both universities were funded the same amount per student, Boise State would receive more than $52 million in additional annual funding. Taking graduate students into account, that number swells to more than $92 million.

"Over the years we get farther and farther behind," said Kustra.

Blake Youde, chief Communications and Legislative Affairs officer for the Idaho State Board of Education, blames the combination of the 2008 recession and the current enrollment-based funding system for the uneven levels of state support.

Under current guidelines, Idaho public universities receive a predetermined amount of base funding, along with an allotment of the so-called Enrollment Workload Adjustment.

"When the economy takes a downturn we see an increase in enrollment and vice versa," said Youde. "What happened over the last few years is that the state didn't have the revenues available to fund the calculations for the EWA."

When functioning properly, the EWA provides funding based on the number of enrolled students and is updated on a three-year rolling average. However, according to Youde, that EWA funding has not been updated since the 2008 recession.

The result, he said, is that public universities are being funded based on an old formula, leaving institutions like Boise State, which have seen rapid enrollment increases, significantly underfunded.

"While K-12 has now been funded up to 2009 levels, higher education has not," said Youde.

One solution, he said, would be to switch from the EWA to another funding method—specifically, outcomes-based funding. That method funds public universities based on output of graduates rather than enrollment levels. Most important, it would be based on current numbers.

Kustra said he is in favor of outcomes-based funding as long as the outcomes make sense. That said, Kustra worries about what he sees as possible roadblocks that could be thrown up by U of I and other universities competing for the same dollars.

"One important question will be this: Are all the universities, their presidents and their lobbyists, in full support of this plan? And can we all agree that no one university will try to kill it by going directly to legislators and suggesting that it's not a high priority with them? It must be the highest priority for all the universities," he said, "and that is still to be determined."

Meanwhile, ASBSU, Boise State's student government, is following Kustra's lead. The governing body has voted unanimously to establish a "new platform on higher education," stating its intention is to "call upon the Idaho Legislature to increase investment in higher education which benefits all Idahoans."

"It's not 'fund us more', it's 'fund us equitably'" said Scholer.

Kustra advised ASBSU to "focus on the future" and make the success of the outcomes-based funding program its main goal.

"I think when you get right down to it, what students are going to have to do is not necessarily make the narrow case that 'we're here because this is good for Boise State' but that 'we're here because we're students, and because we pay tuition, and because we expect public higher education in Idaho to be cost effective, and to be the very best at the allocation and expenditure of resources,'" he said.

Scholer said he's unwilling to give up and move on from the funding gap, and he wants students to advocate for reimbursement of at least a portion of the funds he claims Boise State has been shorted.

"Asking the Idaho Legislature for $52 million is equivalent to pulling a tooth out that is not ready to come out yet," said Scholer. "It's just not likely to happen, and it's a painful process. But we understand that, and that's why we're not going to be protesting. We're going to sit down and have these difficult conversations and, hopefully, we'll get somewhere."

When asked about ASBSU's chances of success, Youde said he was "not going to try to predict the Legislature." However, he did add that the Idaho State Board of Education would be behind ASBSU's efforts to increase funding for higher education in general and would be happy to have a student organization's "voice and insight."

"I understand ASBSU's point [about the funding gap's unfairness] completely, because BSU has grown in enrollment at a higher rate than other schools," said Youde. "Student activity in the public process to advocate for their college or university is outstanding. It shows pride and concern within the student body, and that's something that the Idaho State Board of Education wants to encourage. We welcome ASBSU's resolution and think it's great to have them involved."

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