BYU-Idaho: Leading by innovation

Published: Monday, Oct. 17 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

Students flood the new BYU-Idaho center, which seats 15,000 students, after a devotional.

Michael Lewis

Editors Note: This is the last in a three part series on BYU-Idaho and the implications for higher education. Read part one of the series here. Read part two of the series here.

REXBURG, Idaho — Betty Oldham has seen her fair share of changes at BYU-Idaho.

She came to this campus in Rexburg as a student in the late '60s and she's amazed to see how much it's changed.

Now the assistant to the president, she recalls that 40 years ago all her main classes were in one building. There was only one grocery store in town and none of the students had cars.

Today, Oldham has bright blue eyes, bronze-rimmed, oval glasses and curly white and gray hair. She's still as pretty as she was in the 60s, but she has something she didn't have then — perspective.

When she went to school, higher education nationwide was much more affordable. Take Harvard, for example. In 1963, a full year of tuition cost $1,520 or $10,564 in today's dollars. The current cost of tuition there is now over $33,700 a year. Even the University of Texas, a public institution, has inflated its price. Tuition at U.T. cost just $100 a year in the 1960s, which would be the equivalent of $695 today. Now, tuition at the University of Texas is $7,630 a semester.

But it's not just the cost of higher education that has skyrocketed over the years. Quality has also diminished, according to authors of the book "Academically Adrift," who found that students learn very little in college today. According to the book, 45 percent of students in colleges nationwide "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" in the first two years of college, and 36 percent of students showed that same result over four years. The authors came to these conclusions after analyzing thousands of students' responses to the Collegiate Learning Assessment survey, which measures gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning and other skills taught at college. After looking at surveys and transcripts of thousands of college students, they argued that students are trying to pursue the easiest course possible and teachers let them get away with this because professors are more worried about getting a good rating by their students and pursuing their own research agenda (which helps in securing tenure) than they are about implementing rigorous course work.

"If we continue on in the direction we have been on with having a much narrower focus and not as much support for innovation and new approaches to solving problems, I am afraid we are not going to have the same quality of higher education that got us to the same political, social and economic prosperity that we had in the past," said John Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors.

And while many governors and even President Obama have made it a goal to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released a report that shows the U.S. dropped from the 12th to 16th place in proportion of young adults ages 25 to 34 who hold a certificate degree or higher.

While Oldham has seen this crisis unfold in higher education, she has also been a part of a college that is bucking those trends.

She was in meetings in 2005, just after President Kim Clark became president of Brigham Young University-Idaho, where administrators discussed how to make the school year-round, thus serving 50 percent more students and saving 20 percent of fixed costs per student.

At that time, even Oldham thought there was no way the university could convince students to come during the summer, which was essential to making the plan work. Six years later, there are nearly 15,000 students on campus during that time.

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