Trustees | General Education

Flunked: A searing report card about the quality of higher ed in Idaho

MAGIC VALLEY TIMES-NEWS   |  March 13, 2011 by Editorial

State funding for Idaho higher education will be trimmed by the Legislature again this year, sharpening the focus on what’s necessary and what isn’t on Idaho’s college campuses.

In January, the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni released a report card on Idaho higher education, in conjunction with the Boise-based Idaho Freedom Foundation. Its conclusions were sobering.

This report examined Idaho’s undergraduate-degree-granting colleges and universities (specifically excluding the state’s community colleges), focusing on what students are learning, whether the marketplace of ideas is vibrant, how the universities are run, and what a college education costs. In most cases, Idaho earned failing grades.

What follows are excerpts from the report.

Overall grade: F

Idaho institutions have solid general education requirements in some core subjects. However, large numbers of students can graduate without a strong base of knowledge in literature, U.S. government or history, and economics.

To be counted in this report, a course must be a true general education course, broad in scope, exposing the student to the rich array of material that exemplifies the subject. Furthermore, if a course that qualifies for credit were one of several options that also included courses that do not meet the specifications for general education credit, the institution did not receive credit for the subject.

After researching the institutions, the ACTA assigned a passing (P) or failing (F) grade for each subject. On the whole, Idaho earned an F, and only one out of the four schools surveyed required a majority of the seven core subjects.

Three four-year schools received credit for science. However, at least two of the four did not receive credit in composition, literature, foreign language and math, and not a single one received credit for U.S. government or history or for economics. While it is possible for students to study these subjects, exemptions as well as the number and variety of courses that satisfy existing distribution requirements, make it easy for students to graduate with large gaps in their knowledge.

The only institution surveyed that required a majority of the seven subjects was Lewis-Clark State College. It requires solid coursework in composition, literature, mathematics and natural or physical science. However, it failed to require coursework in U.S. government or history and in economics. LCSC does require students receiving a bachelor of arts degree to study four semesters of foreign language. However, most majors at LCSC offer students the option of earning a bachelor of science degree, thus students can avoid the language requirement.

General education

Overall grade: F

Composition: F

Literature: F

Language: F

U.S. government or history: F

Economics: F

Mathematics F

Natural or physical science: F

Boise State University has the weakest general education program in the state. Students may exempt out of composition. The rest of the subjects are combined into several large distribution categories. Students select a handful of classes from each with only minimal guidance provided by the curricular structure. The result is that there is not a single course that BSU requires of all its students—and therefore no material that a BSU student will be certain to learn.

In order to be good stewards of their resources and to ensure their students acquire the knowledge they need, Idaho public institutions should proceed on two fronts. First, they should retain the excellent requirements they already have. Second, they should strengthen their other requirements so that students will achieve intermediate competency in foreign language, learn basic economic principles, and take broad courses in literature and U.S. government or history.

The State Board of Education’s 1996 Articulation Policy provides guidance to Idaho higher education regarding academic expectations for general education. Regrettably, the policy allows schools to substitute vague distribution requirements in place of specific core requirements in certain key academic areas. Its criteria for fulfilling the mathematics requirement, however, are rigorous, and Idaho’s institutions would do well to follow them carefully.

Notably, in recent years, BSU, Idaho State University and the University of Idaho have all had “common reading” programs, in which all freshmen were required to read the same book in order to create a campus-wide shared learning experience. This is a laudable practice and can be expanded. A coherent core ensures students study a common set of foundational subjects, providing a shared learning experience that is far greater than a single book.

Trustees, given their ultimate responsibility to the people of Idaho, can and should play a central role in this process.

Intellectual diversity

Overall grade: F

Despite well-advertised commitments to academic freedom and free expression, speech codes, recent freedom of expression controversies, and survey results suggest that the intellectual atmosphere on Idaho’s campuses is less than ideal.

All of Idaho’s public institutions have published statements regarding students’ rights to free expression as well as statements indicating that faculty are not permitted to use the classroom as a platform for airing personal views.

For example, the University of Idaho says that, “Students and student associations shall be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express their opinions publicly or privately, subject only to civil and criminal law.” Idaho State University says that, “Instructors should encourage free discussion, inquiry and expression among their students in their quest for knowledge.” And Lewis-Clark State College says that, “Students have the right to exercise their full rights as citizens without interference or fear of college disciplinary action” and that faculty “must insure students the right to raise relevant issues, doubts, or alternative opinions during classroom discussion without concern for academic sanctions.”

Yet there is ongoing controversy over whether Idaho’s public universities are honoring these commitments. In the spring of 2010, UI brought disciplinary charges against a student because he “violated the rights of the university community” when his political comments were deemed “statements denigrating an ethnic group.” The same student’s political speech at a parade led to charges for “shouting hostile and offensive statements” and for “intentionally walking into a (never-identified) person with intent to intimidate.” After civil liberties groups took notice of the case and got involved, all charges relating to offensive speech and intimidation were eventually dropped.

Another ongoing case concerns the speech rights of faculty. In 2009, Habib Sadid, an award-winning professor of 22 years of tenure, made comments critical of ISU’s administration. Shortly afterwards, he was suspended, barred from campus and eventually terminated. Richard Jacobsen, dean of the ISU College of Engineering, indicated that Dr. Sadid was guilty of “insubordination” and “lack of collegiality.” The latter charge—that Sadid had failed to cooperate with his peers—is undercut by the finding of ISU’s Faculty Senate that the actions against Sadid were “without merit.” Sadid’s case has now entered the courts and is currently being appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court. The case is a significant part of a larger conflict between ISU’s faculty and administration, a dispute that has so far led to a vote of no confidence in the provost, and most recently, a no-confidence vote in the president.

To gain further insight, ACTA commissioned the Pert Group, a national firm with offices in Hartford, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh, to perform a survey of students at the state’s flagship university, the University of Idaho. The survey was administered in December 2010.

Students were asked questions that correspond to four key indicators of intellectual diversity: offering competing ideals, differing perspectives, and alternate claims of truth; teaching students to think critically; offering a safe environment for students; and ensuring professional responsibility in the classroom. In order to assign grades, we used a standard cut-off of 64 percent as a passing grade.

Overall, the results are troubling. Significant percentages of students reported course readings and panel discussions that are one-sided or unfair, professors injecting politics into class when it was not relevant, and pressure to agree with a professor’s views, either concerning the topic at hand or on other issues, in order to get a good grade. Few students reported being aware of procedures in place to lodge a complaint about such concerns, and a substantial number reported that they would feel uncomfortable doing so even if they had a good reason. And while the results indicate that students believe they find a better intellectual atmosphere outside the classroom, over a third of the students believed that the student newspaper would get in trouble if it criticized the administration.

It is also notable that while Idaho students overwhelmingly knew that the First Amendment protects their free-speech rights, they were largely unaware that their campuses had in place restrictive speech codes, which effectively ban certain types of expression. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which maintains a comprehensive database of such policies, has concluded that restrictive policies are in place at three of Idaho’s four public institutions: ISU, LCSC and UI. Taken together, the evidence indicates that Idaho’s public universities need to take steps to ensure a free exchange of ideas.


Overall grade: P

The purpose of lay governance in higher education is to bring the viewpoint of informed citizens to bear on the running of the university. However, it is often the case that lay boards do not live up to the promise of effective citizen governance. Some boards simply function as rubber stamps for administrative recommendations, while others are actively involved in working with administrators and other constituencies and are willing to exercise the authority needed to make tough choices.

Complete meeting minutes of the Idaho Board of Education were available for 26 meetings during the period reviewed. At these meetings, the board voted on more than 800 motions and approved more than 90 percent of them unanimously. However, the pattern of the non-unanimous votes indicates that the board culture encourages engagement and thoughtful dissent.

At five meetings, a trustee requested that one or more items be removed from the consent agenda. Fourteen motions failed, several unanimously, over the course of eight meetings. An additional 53 motions passed with dissenting votes over the course of 14 meetings. In total, 15 of the 26 meetings had at least one dissenting vote, meaning that a “no” vote was cast every other meeting or so. Perhaps most importantly, during the period reviewed, every single trustee voted against a motion at least once, and three trustees voted against more than 20 motions.

Additionally, the motions that failed or earned dissenting votes demonstrated trustee engagement on substantive issues. For example, the board voted down motions that would have allowed a student group to host an on-campus event that served alcohol, changed the board policies to increase the amount that administrators could spend without board approval, increased the scope and cost of a capital project that was already in progress, increased tuition and fees, and approved an out-sourcing agreement with a dormitory management company. The trustees are to be commended for taking seriously their responsibility to guide the universities on important matters.

Cost and effectiveness

Overall grade: F

Inflation-adjusted tuition and required fees increased significantly throughout Idaho during the period reviewed. From 2004 to 2009, in-state tuition and fees increased by double-digit percentages at every institution. Although tuition rates remain low compared with national averages, rapid increases make it difficult for students and their families to plan for college expenses. Thus a failing grade for each institution and the state as a whole.

In 2009, annual in-state undergraduate tuition and required fees at all four universities surveyed required a greater percentage of median household income than they did just five years earlier. In 2004, Idaho families could expect to pay an average of 8 percent of their household income for annual in-state tuition and fees. In 2009, an average of 10.3 percent of median household income was required. This represents an average increase of nearly 29 percent during the period reviewed, even after adjusting for inflation. Thus a failing grade for each university and for the state as a whole.

From 2003 to 2008, only BSU consistently increased its percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen who returned the next fall for their sophomore year, gaining a total of 6 percentage points during the period reviewed. In contrast, LCSC’s retention rate has been falling steadily since 2005, losing a total of 9 percentage points. Retention rates at the two remaining institutions fluctuated both up and down during the period reviewed.

There is much work to be done, since between a quarter and a half of Idaho students are not returning to college for their sophomore year. Since a majority of the institutions surveyed do not meet the criteria of having at least 64 percent of their freshmen return for a second year, the state receives a failing grade.

Although the trend is headed in the right direction, there is still a great deal of work to be done as graduation rates throughout the state remain unacceptably low. Depending on the institution, between half and three-quarters of the students who entered Idaho universities in 2003—expecting to graduate in 2007—had still not earned a degree by 2009. Thus a failing grade for each institution and the state as a whole.

In 2003, spending on Instruction at the four institutions surveyed ranged from 32.4 percent to 62.7 percent of each institution’s respective education and general expenditures. In that same year, spending on administration ranged from 9.1 percent to 15.0 percent of E&G

In 2008, Instruction as a percentage of E&G declined for three of the four institutions examined. Spending on instruction ranged from 37.8 percent to 61.2 of E&G. Meanwhile, two of the institutions increased their spending on administration as a percentage of E&G. Spending on administration ranged from 10 percent to 11.3 percent of E&G.

BSU is to be commended for cutting its spending on administration while substantially increasing its spending on Instruction. UI increased spending on Instruction at a greater rate than it did administration, but it should be noted that its spending on Administration still far exceeded that of the other universities. Additionally, spending on administration at both ISU and LCSC increased in relation to Instruction. With the exception of BSU, spending on administration increased by double-digit percentages during the period reviewed. Thus, a failing grade for the state.

Universities are not required to report their spending on athletics to the U.S. Department of Education, so a direct comparison with spending on construction is difficult. However, it is informative to note that data obtained by USA Today through a Freedom of Information Act request indicates that spending on athletics rose significantly in recent years at all three of the NCAA Division I universities in the state.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More