In late August, Moscow begins to vibrate with the energy of new and returning students about to begin the new academic year at the University of Idaho. This year, a special optimism is in the air as Scott Green, Moscow native and UI graduate, begins as the University’s new president.

As a fellow UI graduate and a state senator, I welcome Green and offer my support to help him achieve the university’s vision to “expand the institution’s intellectual and economic impact and make higher education relevant and accessible … ,” and his own vision to enhance the student experience and ensure the UI is affordable.

I, too, am committed to strengthening Idaho’s higher education system and I agree with President Green, perhaps now more than ever, we need to make higher education more available and more affordable. We know that earning a college degree provides economic and social benefits to individual graduates. It’s easier for them to find jobs and they’re likely to earn higher salaries. Over a lifetime, even accounting for the added costs of attending college, a college graduate will earn 50 percent more than a person with a high school diploma but no college credits.

College graduates also are likely to be healthier than folks with less education. With the lowest rates of obesity and the lowest rates of cardiovascular and other long-term, life-threatening diseases, perhaps the greatest benefit of a college education is a longer, healthier, and overall less stressful life.

What is less obvious than benefits to the individual are benefits to the communities and states where college graduates live. People with a college degree tend to volunteer in their communities at nearly four times the rate of people without a high school diploma, and they are less likely to need public assistance. A college graduate pays nearly twice the amount of taxes, and people with a professional degree, such as law or medicine, pay almost four times as much in taxes as people with a high school diploma who did not attend college.

Employers in Idaho are begging for highly trained professionals to fill the 6,000+ STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math) currently vacant in Idaho. That’s $413 million per year in unearned wages and $22 million lost in potential taxes to the state.

Between 1980 and 2016, the average annual cost of tuition and fees to attend college in Idaho rose by 500 percent, even when adjusted for inflation. And now there’s less help from the state than in prior years. In 1980 the state funded 93 percent of the cost of higher education, but by 2018, state funding had decreased to only 54 percent, while the student’s share (tuition and fees) rose from 7 percent to 46 percent. It’s not surprising, then, that 71 percent of students who graduate from Idaho’s colleges carry an average debt of more than $26,000.

The specter of such debt is daunting, and a significant number of potential students either don’t enroll or they drop out after just a few semesters because of the high cost. The situation is even more dire for individuals and families who are in poverty. If we want Idahoans to have security for their families and help improve the future of our state, we need programs that address poverty and programs that reduce the financial burden on students who want to attend our colleges and universities.

Green has talked about his vision that the University of Idaho would contribute to “a virtuous, self-sustaining circle of success.” I applaud that vision and celebrate his commitment to greater student access and success in higher education. I am committed to working in the legislature to that end, by helping to increase state funding for our public colleges and universities. I am also committed to developing and implementing programs to help reduce poverty in Idaho and ultimately, help make Idaho a place where all our citizens will have their best shot at health and prosperity.

David Nelson , D-Moscow, is serving in his first term as an Idaho state senator.

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