A Chance at Success
Student support services, financial aid and enrollment management combine efforts to give more Idaho students a chance at a college education
Dean Kahler admits he was initially a terrible student — unfocused and with poor time-management skills, more interested in his social life than in studying.
“Eventually I needed to pay for college, and so I got a job or two, and I was really distracted from being a successful student,” Kahler said. “Finally, at one point, I just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
And like many students who struggle with academics and the burden of paying for school, Kahler dropped out of college to work full time.
Thousands of students drop out of college every year in the U.S. The outcomes for those students — many of whom are saddled with student loans for a degree they didn’t receive — are less than sunny.
Kahler, now the vice provost for Strategic Enrollment Management at the University of Idaho, wants to help more students overcome financial, social and academic hurdles so they can succeed in higher education — and life.
“I don’t want people to struggle. I want people to have access to college. I see so many who don’t have that opportunity, and they struggle through life. I want to help open that door for as many people as possible,” Kahler said. “When students start school, I want them to be successful and finish.”
Kahler decided to return to college when he realized the immediate-gratification job he was in wasn’t something he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He finished his bachelor’s and went on to earn his master’s in public administration and a doctorate in educational administration in higher education from Southern Illinois University.
Kahler joined UI’s leadership team in September 2016, and has jumped in with both feet to help the university meet its strategic goal to make education more accessible for students in Idaho and across the Pacific Northwest.
He sees UI and the state as perfectly positioned to work in tandem to increase the number of Idaho high schoolers who go to college, graduate and go on to have more meaningful careers with higher earning potential — up to $1.2 million more over the course of a lifetime, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“That’s the rising tide that lifts all boats,” Kahler said. “It’s a great environment for Idaho and for the University of Idaho. It’s great for our society. We have a bright future ahead of us.”
From Cradle to Career
UI Provost and Executive Vice President John Wiencek restructured the Division of Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) in summer 2016 to create a holistic unit that oversees a student’s journey at UI: from recruitment through enrollment, retention and graduation, and into their career.
Several departments that formerly fell under the Division of Student Affairs or other areas have moved into SEM — including Distance and Extended Education, Career Services and Academic Support Programs. Kahler refers to it as an interdisciplinary, nonacademic environment.
“The provost has a really good understanding of student success and of enrollment management. I think that he saw the opportunity to realize a synergy between a diverse makeup of offices,” Kahler said. “It’s all about serving students from very early on in their educational careers and serving those lifelong learners over the course of their lifetime.”
One new initiative coming out of SEM is the Idaho Go On, or I Go, pilot program. Through I Go, new graduates will be hired and placed in high schools in districts across the state with traditionally low rates of students attending college. The advisors will work with students and their parents to increase financial literacy, help fill out the U.S. government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and college admission applications, as well as assist with identifying and applying for scholarships. The goal isn’t to recruit more students to UI, Kahler said, but rather to break down barriers and assumptions that prevent students from thinking college is accessible for them.
“The program is focused on helping the student to be college-ready and understand that this is an opportunity that they can have access to,” he said. “We aren’t interested in saying, ‘You need to go to the University of Idaho.’ The college go-on rate is a statewide challenge for us. We need to all be working together to eliminate the hurdles preventing students from continuing their education.”
The advising model is used in several states nationwide and is quite effective, Kahler said. The UI program received some initial startup funds through UI’s Vandal Ideas Project, which awarded more than $300,000 in grant funding to projects aimed at improving Idaho’s college attendance rate.
The cost of a college education gets a lot of headlines, but Kahler would rather focus on the outcomes.
“The U.S. Census Bureau is showing year after year that students who graduate from college are significantly enhancing their earning ability over the course of a lifetime,” Kahler said. “There’s no doubt that education pays.”
At UI, one-third of students graduate with no debt, and of those who do take on debt, the average is about $26,000, Kahler said. That $26,000 might include the costs for their room and board for four years, meal plans and the tuition costs — but statistics show that the investment results in significantly higher wages and more career opportunities.
“I don’t want people to struggle. I want people to have access to college. I see so many who don’t have that opportunity, and they struggle through life. I want to help open that door for as many people as possible. When students start school, I want them to be successful and finish.” Dean Kahler
“That’s a great investment when you consider you’ll also spend the same amount of money on a car,” he said. “The return on investment on a car is zero. But the investment in your baccalaureate degree with that same debt level provides great returns.”
UI students pay a lower annual cost for their education, graduate at higher levels compared to Idaho’s other four-year public institutions and go on to earn higher salaries after graduation, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Kahler and the offices in SEM are working to help make college even more affordable. For the 2017-18 academic year, UI increased the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) program for qualified students from Oregon and Washington. WUE offers more than $11,000 in savings each year over full out-of-state costs. In September, the university also expanded WUE to Alaska.
“We definitely saw that price was a real serious obstacle for students from Oregon and Washington, so we thought WUE would be a helpful thing to help those students gain access to our university,” Kahler said.
UI is widely recognized as an exceptional value with good scholarship and financial aid programs to support students. For Idaho students with a 3.9-4.0 GPA, UI offers the Go Idaho! Scholarship Program, which awards $4,000 for a minimum of three years. Students with a 3.0-3.39 GPA can get a $1,000 scholarship. There are also scholarship programs available for non-resident students.
Once students are in school, UI offers them the Better Education About Money for Students (BEAMS) and iGrad programs to help them become more financially literate and manage their finances and debt load. Kahler also wants to reach parents earlier and encourage investment in 529 college savings accounts.
“We know that the price of college is going to keep going up. But what we’ve got to do is start talking to students and parents to help them be more prepared to finance and make college more affordable,” Kahler said. “Students need to study hard in high school and to maximize scholarships. If a student works hard and is academically and financially prepared, then UI can be a great value for them.”
Changing the perception about college affordability and the value of investing in a bachelor’s degree won’t be easy, Kahler admits.
“There’s a tremendous amount of perception out there that school isn’t affordable, that prices are going through the roof, and our press is depicting scenarios where students are graduating with huge amounts of debt,” Kahler said. “We’re going to keep working with it. It’s not an easy answer. It’s always been a challenge. The value and the return on the investment is worth it still. The key is to start talking early.”
Despite the challenges facing today’s students, Kahler continually emphasizes the value of staying in school, and counts himself fortunate that he didn’t stay a college dropout. He tries to use his experience to guide students to make better choices.
“Sometimes when you exit from school, it’s really tough to get back in. I was really fortunate that I was able to get back into school because it is so hard to leave that paycheck and overcome those bills and invest in a better future,” he said. “I don’t want other students to fall into those traps.”
Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications and Marketing