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How rural Idaho is pioneering the future of college prep

Abby Shull of Idaho Falls, Idaho, High School talks about her presentation on Stirling Engines with competition judge Adam Ball during Utah State University Physics Day at Lagoon in Farmington, Friday, May 15, 2015.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

As COVID-19 continues its interruption of the traditional school year, one Wall Street Journal writer suggests that Idaho may have a solution.

A column in last weekend’s WSJ exhorted American educators to “look to Idaho for inspiration” in better preparing students for college and careers. Yes, folks, you read that right — Utah’s neighbor to the north has something growing that could become a true American staple.

A novel Idaho education program — called “Advanced Opportunities” — has been dubbed an innovative approach to college and career preparation for high school students. It provides funding and customized opportunities for seventh- through 12-graders to take advanced courses or career prep classes. Thanks to the program, the majority of Idaho high school seniors this fall are enrolled in college courses, all subsidized by the state.

Upon reaching the seventh grade, Idaho students are allocated $4,125 to use toward “overload” courses (high school courses taken outside of the typical school day), college credits, workforce development courses or exams. Over their final six years of grade school, they work with their parents or high school guidance counselors to chart a funded path toward college or a technical career. (And the sooner Idahoans finish high school, the better — Advanced Opportunities incentivizes early graduates to the tune of an $1,800 scholarship per skipped year.)

“The past 25 years of education reform has been defined by top-down initiatives intended to close the achievement gap,” wrote Max Eden in The Wall Street Journal. “But Idaho state Sen. Steven Thayn … wanted to fix ‘public education’s fundamental flaw’ — the idea that ‘the state could educate students without the help of parents.’”

Thayn, who formed the program that blossomed into Advanced Opportunities, is “a former high-school teacher and dairy farmer who splits time between writing laws and bailing hay,” Eden wrote. The program has effectively served students in Thayn’s rural Idaho hometown, Emmett, and beyond, providing equal opportunities for students to further their education, regardless of where they live.

Since Idaho implemented the Advanced Opportunities program in 2016, tens of thousands of Idaho students have been the beneficiaries. Over 36,000 students participated in the program during fiscal year 2019, and their families saved big — for every dollar spent by the state “on dual-credit classes, families saved $4.58 on the potential cost of tuition,” Idaho Ed News reported.

While providing college-level courses or workforce training to high school students is not incredibly innovative, the way in which Idaho does it is. By offering students both funding and freedom of choice, the students are empowered to take responsibility for their education. “The kids feel like it’s their money,” Thayn told Eden. “It’s not a state program they have to access. It’s theirs. That’s a huge psychological difference.”

That paradigm shift — Eden called it students’ “purchasing power” — fuels what appears to be a huge contrast with other American high schoolers. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which rocked many college-bound high schoolers’ plans, student enrollment at American colleges and universities had steadily decreased for nearly a decade. American high schoolers seem less and less enthused about higher education, and Idaho’s model could be a step toward reversing that trend.

Thayn and others view Advanced Opportunities as a gateway to a new educational system, allowing pathways to college or to technical training. Like Switzerland’s system, such a design would give equitable opportunities to students from rural and urban areas alike.

As states and schools battle the economic repercussions of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a multimillion-dollar undertaking like Advanced Opportunities may not be feasible. But should Idaho’s program continue to blossom — and its students thrive — a similar investment in young adults nationwide may be a wise strategy.