COEUR d'ALENE - Chuck Staben has been University of Idaho's president for a mere 17 months. One thing already is glaringly apparent: He recruits students like he plays racquetball. And just for the record, when he plays racquetball, he does not lose.
"Undefeated in Idaho," the university's 18th president stated matter-of-factly during an editorial board meeting Wednesday at The Press.
Renowned as highly competitive both on and off the court when he arrived in Moscow from South Dakota on March 1, 2014, Staben is not likely to go unbeaten as UI's ace recruiter. In fact, just a few miles from his office, Washington State University made national headlines and new friends recently when all the state's four-year public schools announced that they would reduce tuition 20 percent over the next two years.
"It will impact us, we think, in terms of our ability to recruit students from Washington to come to Idaho," Staben acknowledged. "Now, we still offer very competitive scholarships for students from Washington and other states, but I think it could have a negative effect...throughout Idaho. Washington is an important out-of-state regional recruiting partner for us."
But Staben returned Washington's stunning serve with a strong volley of his own. In his quest to build enrollment at Idaho and improve the state's go-on rate for high school graduates, he's unleashing his own selling points.
He's on a mission to simplify.
"We used to have kind of a complex matrix of this test score and that GPA would get you this [scholarship] amount," he said. Not anymore. Now the university offers, to any Idaho high school graduate, a merit scholarship based on GPA. For a student who graduates with a 3.9 to 4.0 GPA, for instance, Idaho offers a $4,000 per year merit scholarship for four years, he said. Even students earning a 3.0 will receive $1,000 a year for four years.
"We know that if you have a high school GPA of 3.0 or better, you can succeed in college, and we want you to come here, we value your coming, and we're going to help you," he said.
Further simplification: Staben likes to tell this story.
One day last November, he decided to apply for admission to the University of Idaho. "So I'm sitting in the office typing this stuff up - I'm pretty good at web forms - and I'm pretending to be a high school student in the only state in the nation with a K-20 education system, one board, one state board of education office, which has all of my data if I'm a high school student. Why am I being asked for my high school GPA and my SAT score and my address and all of that, if actually our main office has that? Why don't we just use the information we have about these high school students to say, 'Congratulations! You've done well in high school and you need to go to college. And you're admitted to the University of Idaho. Click on this link, figure out your scholarship and let's register you up!'"
Starting soon, letters stating something similar might be going to Idaho families of good students, dramatically streamlining the process for continued education, Staben said. The state Board of Education is likely to vote on the initiative in August. The program could start as early as September and impact students enrolling in an Idaho four-year institution for fall 2016.
"We think this could make a big difference," he said.
University of Idaho also funded its own "go-on" study, intent on learning why many good students don't go on to college.
"We have hundreds of students we've surveyed - students graduating in May 2015 - and then we're going to go interview as many of those seniors as we can, especially those who didn't go on so we can figure out why they didn't go on," he said. "We're taking this issue of college attendance very seriously, and the university is trying to take a leadership position for the state."
Further, UI is asking the Legislature to eliminate the college application fee for all Idaho residents - one more way to make college as affordable as possible for Idaho families. Affordability is paramount for many Idaho families, Staben emphasized.
Although it can't match Washington for tuition reduction, UI's last two tuition increases have been the university's smallest in the past decade. Not only is UI significantly more affordable than its Pac-12 neighbor to the immediate west, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics, University of Idaho's net prices are the lowest among Idaho's four-year institutions for families earning as much as $48,000 a year.
The competitive president believes simplifying the transition to college and offering a good education affordably is a winning strategy.
"I keep comparing a lot of these initiatives to Amazon," Staben said. "Amazon does not make it hard for you to buy a product. They want you to buy a product.
"I want you to go to college."