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Martin Center column examines higher education ‘earthquake’ out west

Scott Yenor writes for the Martin Center about major higher education developments in Idaho.

Idaho’s state legislature, together with a newly engaged state board and Governor Brad Little, has made an issue of the spiraling higher education costs. Tuition increases have fostered expansions of bureaucracy and mission creep, and such expansions demand ever-greater tuition revenues.

In June 2019, for instance, Boise State University (BSU) interim president Martin Schimpf sent a letter to Boise State faculty and staff boasting of BSU’s accomplishments in promoting diversity and inclusion. He promised more to come, including scholarships for DACA students (illegal under Idaho law), graduate fellowships designed for “underrepresented minority students” (which BSU then did), and the hiring of a chief diversity officer (which BSU also pursued).

Republican Rep. Barbara Ehardt and 27 colleagues from Idaho’s statehouse penned a letter asking BSU’s incoming president, Marlene Tromp, the former provost at the University of California-Santa Cruz, to take a “different path.” Those diversity programs do not represent what “higher education should be,” Rep. Ehardt argued, and they drive up student tuition.

The letter set off an earthquake.

Rep. Ehardt defended the letter in a public forum on BSU’s campus in October, along with Rep. Bryan Zollinger in a packed room, including many members of BSU’s minority student alliances and clubs. (Disclosure: I advise the College Republicans, co-sponsors of the event.) When Rep. Zollinger praised America as the land of opportunity, the rainbow coalition booed. Donors and decisionmakers took note.

Six weeks later, the state board of education, which controls K-12 and higher education, announced its first tuition freeze in 43 years. State university presidents hoped to offset the revenue loss by securing a 6.8 percent increase in General Funds appropriations. Instead, Gov. Little proposed a mere 0.4 percent increase.

University presidents and their publicly financed lobbyists sprang into action, trying to go around Gov. Little’s budget and get the increase from Idaho’s Joint Finance Committee (JFAC). Lobbying efforts met with some success, as JFAC increased the higher education budget $1.7 million above what Gov. Little had asked for.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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