Gov. Brad Little’s preemptive “spending reset,” to rein in state spending before the next economic downturn, is a good start to help Idaho taxpayers who could use a break from a decade of a growing state government. But other taxpayers—Idaho’s increasingly put-upon college and university students—also need relief. That relief can be achieved if Little and lawmakers decide this winter to impose a freeze on college tuition and fees. 

Historically, the Legislature has declined to interfere with the price of attending Idaho’s colleges and universities, even though the state constitution gives elected officials that authority. Instead, the Legislature has punted the responsibility to the State Board of Education, which sets the price of admission. It would take a change in state law to revert oversight to elected lawmakers, where it belongs. 

The Legislature’s nonintervention policy has freed the gubernatorial-appointed State Board of Education to engage in an annual routine of deciding how much to stick it to students under the premise that lawmakers aren’t generous enough with taxpayer funds. It’s the same story year after year, no matter how much or how little money lawmakers dish out. But, let’s set the record straight: State appropriations for the Idaho university system have increased 40% since the end of the last recession.

The resulting board-approved unfettered tuition increases have eclipsed the rate of inflation by a country mile. In the last 15 years, tuition and fees at the University of Idaho and Boise State University have more than doubled. Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College’s tuition and fees have gone up roughly 90% over the same period.

Meanwhile, at the University of Idaho, Idaho State University, and Lewis-Clark State College, enrollment is down significantly since 2012. School overhead that includes the number of employees at each of Idaho’s four institutions, has gone up and up. Much of the increase in spending at each of the schools is happening in administration and school bureaucracy, not in instruction.

Equally disturbing is the fact that the increased overhead at Idaho’s colleges and universities has done nothing to solve the problem of abysmal graduation rates. The latest federal data show that the University of Idaho is the most successful at graduating students, but that’s with a lamentable graduation rate of just 55% after six years of college. BSU’s six-year graduation rate is 43%. Both ISU and LCSC have six-year graduation rates in the 20s. This is part of the reason Idaho taxpayers are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with school expenditures that appear to be more about social justice programming—viewing students as fragile beings, victims, and easily “triggered”—than delivering a quality college education. 

Last week, University of Idaho President C. Scott Green gave a presentation to faculty, staff, and students wherein he acknowledged that his school has a spending problem. Green noted that the school’s revenues are out of sync with expenses, said he’s looking for ways to cut costs, and that he’d like to see his university “hold the line” on tuition.

The governor and the Legislature can cement Green’s stated goal and apply to it all of Idaho’s colleges and universities. The schools can choose to defend administrative bloat and programs geared toward indoctrination or they can choose to give a break to students and taxpayers. Doing the latter would force a much-needed reset that should help get Idaho’s institutions back on the right track.

Wayne Hoffman is president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

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