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Idaho is one of a growing number of states investing in scholarships that incentivize students to enroll and pursue high-demand careers.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images | Rawpixel

A new workforce development scholarship program in Idaho is generating more interest than originally projected, and state officials say the response reflects the demand for education and training needed to fill jobs in the region and an opportunity to get and keep young people employed in the state.

The LAUNCH program offers Idaho high school graduates, or those who completed equivalent education programs, a grant that covers up to 80 percent of tuition and fees for higher education, or a maximum of $8,000. Eligible candidates must either be enrolled or have applied to a degree program at one of 76 eligible Idaho institutions offering state-approved degree or certificate and training programs in high-demand careers.

When state lawmakers approved the program last year, the Idaho Workforce Development Council, WDC, which is overseeing the program, didn’t anticipate the large wave of interest it would receive after applications began being accepted in October.

WDC officials had estimated the program would get 7,500 applications, but approximately 12,600 individuals—68 percent more—had already started or submitted applications as of Dec. 28. The April 15 application deadline is still more than two months away.

Idaho governor Brad Little is “immensely proud of the students and families utilizing the LAUNCH program” and sees it as “a unique opportunity to connect young Idahoans with the education and training they need for successful careers,” Madison Hardy, Little’s press secretary, said in a statement.

Hardy also noted, however, that the WDC will have to prioritize which students are awarded scholarships due to the large volume of applications. The state allocated $75 million for the program this year, which will fund between 9,000 and 10,000 scholarships.

“Students seeking education and training to enter health care, trades, teaching and STEM-related careers will be among the top recipients of LAUNCH grants,” Hardy said.

State Policy Priority

Workforce development is a policy priority of state lawmakers and higher education leaders across the country. A recent report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association ranked workforce development as the No. 1 policy priority of public university officials for the second year in a row. Some states, including Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland and Minnesota have operated similar scholarship programs since 2017.

Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at SHEEO, said governors across the country have increasingly been focused on workforce development as they set ambitious goals for degree attainment in their states.

For example, former Idaho governor Butch Otter set a high bar back in 2010 to raise the percentage of state residents ages 25 to 34 with a degree or certificate from 37 percent to 60 percent by 2020. But more than three years past the original target date, the state still hasn’t reached that goal. The state’s current degree or certificate attainment rate is 51.8 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation, an education philanthropy group that advocates for college access and compiles degree-attainment data.

“In some states, the trend lines are not encouraging,” Harnisch said. “They really need a shock to the system,” especially in a tight job market in need of middle-skill workers to fill positions that don’t always require degrees.

“Some high school graduates may not feel that there’s a need to go on to pursue a postsecondary credential,” he added. “But with bold proposals, like the Idaho LAUNCH program, you’ll provide significant incentives for students to go on and pursue higher education.”

Harnisch also noted that interest in workforce development scholarships has been highest among policymakers in red states, who view them as more targeted alternatives to broader college promise programs in states such as Maine, Michigan and Massachusetts.

“This is a bipartisan winner,” he said. “If you have a conservative governor and Legislature, they’re going to want to make sure that the dollars they invest go directly towards available jobs to the state as opposed to a broader approach that might require more public investment.”

Program Success in Indiana

Many of the states that have already implemented scholarship programs similar to Idaho’s LAUNCH have had successful outcomes.

Indiana’s Workforce Ready Grant program provided nearly $120 million in college aid that resulted in approximately 77,900 cumulative enrollments since its inception in 2017. College completion rates rose from 46 percent in 2019 to 54 percent in 2021.

“We, like other states, have seen tremendous interest,” said Stacy Townsley, associate commissioner for adult strategy at the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. “We’re just seeing this blurring of lines between workforce development and higher education, and I think Indiana has done a good job in helping to move that forward.”

One difference between Indiana and Idaho is that the Workforce Ready Grant only applies to credit-bearing certificates and non-credit-bearing industry certifications. These limitations were intentional and designed to identify nontraditional learners and support them in pursuing stackable credentials.

“There was a lot of support already existing for those who were coming out of the K-12 space and those who were already in a full degree program, but not so much so in that middle space,” Townsley said. “So for those noncredit skills and short-term certificate programs, it’s really filling a gap.”

In the 2022–23 academic year, the average amount awarded in Indiana per student was about $1,600.

Suggestions for Doing More

Several higher education policy experts largely support workforce development scholarships and anticipate more programs to spring up in the coming years. However, they also believe state lawmakers can do more to improve them.

Shalin Jyotishi, a senior adviser for education and labor at New America, a left-leaning think tank, said funding for workforce development scholarships is an “urgent need,” but without a “smart design,” these programs could risk leading students into “poverty-wage jobs on the taxpayer’s dime.”

He noted that “office clerk” is one of the careers listed as a high-demand job in Idaho’s program. Although there are an estimated 2,695 clerk jobs available in the state each year, according to NextSteps Idaho, people in those jobs earn an average annual salary of $33,276, which is slightly below the local living wage of $33,422, according to MIT’s local living wage calculator.

“When we use taxpayer dollars to subsidize education into poverty-wage jobs, is that right?” Jyotishi asked.

“It seems like the opportunity for LAUNCH to be very successful is certainly there,” he added. But more time and data are needed to gauge whether it, and others like it, are effective and sustainable.”

Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, hopes programs like those in Idaho and Indiana are “looking around the corner” and not just thinking about short-term fixes.

“As much as there’s a focus on in-demand jobs and careers, it’s critical that states have the mechanism to be sure that these programs are supporting careers … and not only the needs today, but five years down the road,” Peller said.

She also hopes such programs will help end the stigmatization of short-term and technical higher education.

“The more that states do this, it broadens the conversation so that these programs aren’t separate from our more traditional degrees,” she said. “They’re really part and parcel.”

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