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Idaho State is taking a risk on creating its own academic advising program

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Idaho State University President Kevin Satterly speaks before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Jan. 27.

Kevin Satterlee isn’t waiting for the Legislature.

The president of Idaho State University is using private donations to hire staff to help its at-risk students – staff hired for jobs the Legislature has refused to fund.

Satterlee uses one-time money or future support from donors to pay for ongoing staff costs. Just as importantly, he calls out the Legislature’s budget writers for not funding additional academic counselors to help Idaho deal with dismal retention and graduation rates.

“These private partners see the value of what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Satterlee said at a recent State Board of Education meeting. “They see value that others don’t.”

Idaho’s request for funding hasn’t gotten much attention this legislative session.

Gov. Brad Little included a $425,800 line item in his higher education budget request — hoping to hire four full-time academic advisors, a full-time “success coordinator” to work with first-year students at risk of dropping out, and a full-time job coordinator with tutors (who are mostly graduate or undergraduate students).

Satterlee presented the position his Jan. 27 presentation to the Legislature’s Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee. But the big plot from JFAC’s “Education Week” and speeches of university presidents in the State House, focused on diversity and inclusion and attempts by the previous legislature to hold back social justice spending.

The Idaho item was left unfunded and more or less ignored.

But Satterlee isn’t taking no for an answer. This is where external support comes in. The state of Idaho is set to use about $450,000 in private money — from donors like the JA Family Foundation and Kathryn Albertson — to fund the new positions.

Basically, Satterlee doesn’t want to wait because he doesn’t think his students can afford to wait. Looking at the 6-year graduation rate of 35.9%, the lowest of Idaho’s four-year schools, he says Idaho simply has to do better. At a poignant moment in his Jan. 27 JFAC presentation, he called the issue of graduation rates a “moral imperative.”

A year ago, the state of Idaho launched a new program in an effort to keep students in school — and on track for a degree. The Internet portal “Navigation”. is designed to connect struggling students with the academic guidance they need by identifying at-risk students before they know they are at risk.

The idea is for teachers to fill out performance reports at the three-week and six-week marks of the semester, flag students who are struggling and connect those students with academic advisors.

A whopping 94% completed progress reports. Last spring semester, faculty handed out 2,900 “flags,” identifying about 1,100 at-risk students, said Corey Zink, Idaho State’s interim dean of students and executive director of academic advising and assessment.

The faculty commitment was “fantastic,” Zink said, but Idaho State’s 20 academic advisors “were stretched very thin.”

Zink hopes to have the four new academic advisors hired and trained by the start of the fall semester in August.

While Satterlee plans to return to the Legislature in 2023 to request funding, the state of Idaho is willing to use private sector funding to keep the new employees on the job. “We don’t post them as one-year positions,” Zink said.

What the Legislature will do next year with Satterlee’s funding request is anyone’s guess — especially after a series of retirements and primary failures. At least 11 of the 20 JFAC members will be newcomers. And one prominent JFAC veteran who ran unopposed this year says she doesn’t feel obligated to fund new Idaho positions next year.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

Representative Wendy Horman agrees that Idaho needs to work on retention and graduation rates. But she’s not sure Idaho will have enough time to build a data-driven case for the new hires.

“They probably think they’re going to see results,” said Horman, of Idaho Falls.

Idaho’s numbers are preliminary, but they are promising.

At all seven Idaho colleges, this year’s fall-to-spring retention rates are above the five-year average by at least 3 percentage points.

While 24% of new students graduated their first semester with a GPA below 2.0, that’s an improvement over the five-year average of close to 29%. GPA is an important criterion, as students who pass the first semester with at least a 2.0 are much more likely to return for the second semester.

Zink expects more data on containment efforts in the fall. But he says there’s no question Idaho needs a system to reach out and help struggling students; it is a necessity for a university that admits almost all applicants.

“We need a support system that fits this approach to admissions,” he said.

Hence Satterley’s gamble. And his not-so-veiled challenge to the Legislature — at a time when the relationship between lawmakers and higher education can best be described as “complicated.”

It may not be as serious as the State House debate on social justice, but it’s a milestone nonetheless.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is funded by a grant from JA and the Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis of education policy and education policy. Look for his stories every Thursday.

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education policy and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; “Idaho Reports” on Idaho Public Television; and “Idaho Matters” on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. It can be reached at the address [email protected]

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