Expanding two-year education is important not only for training Montanans for jobs, but also to jump-start a four-year degree.
An effort called College!Now is working to make a two-year education more affordable, more accessible and better understood throughout the state.
That’s the message that about 25 faculty, staff and community members heard Wednesday during an early-morning gathering at the Montana State University Billings College of Technology.
The “listening session” was one of three in Billings on Wednesday set up by the commissioner of higher education’s office to discuss the future of two-year education.
Billings was the second city visited by two-year higher education officials to discuss College!Now. Meetings will continue in Butte, Missoula and Great Falls later this month.
The Montana University System’s College!Now program is remaking its five colleges of technology into comprehensive community colleges, said John Cech, the state’s deputy commissioner for two-year education.
Cech is the former dean of the MSU Billings COT.
A comprehensive community college offers degrees that transfer to four-year schools, job training, adult education, life-long learning and community development programs.
Some COTs already have many, if not all, of those elements.
Nearly a decade ago, for example, the Billings COT had no degrees that could be transferred to four-year campuses. Now it has several associate degrees that do.
Two-year education plays a critical role in preparing students for jobs, Cech said.
By 2018, 63 percent of all jobs across the country will require some college education.
Montana falls short in attracting students to two-year education.
Only 27 percent of Montana undergraduates in the public University System are enrolled in two-year schools. That compares with nearly 53 percent of undergraduates across the country.
Two-year colleges have many advantages as a place to start an education, including lower cost and good locations. Many Montanans live closer to one of the five COTs or three community colleges than four-year campuses.
Transforming the state’s rapidly growing colleges of technology into community colleges began 10 years ago, Cech said.
College!Now, funded through a Lumina Foundation grant, is helping the state accelerate the process.
One goal of the program is to rename the five COTs to more accurately reflect their new role.
Starting as vocational-education schools, the COTs have expanded far beyond that purpose.
“The name ‘college of technology’ no longer fits,” Cech said.
Cech asked participants to gather in smaller groups to offer their thoughts on changes College!Now might bring.
Their comments included:
The need for more classroom space, faculty and student services to handle larger enrollments if colleges expand.
Concern over what directing more students to COTs might do to enrollment at other campuses. Divisions between faculties also might rise.
Increasing online and hybrid classes, including those to smaller towns around Billings.
Moving all associate degree programs in COTs.
Hiring a more diverse faculty to encourage more Native American students to attend.
Getting students more involved in the College!Now progress.