Gazette opinion: 2-year colleges vital to Montana’s future

2010-10-11T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: 2-year colleges vital to Montana’s futureGazette staff The Billings Gazette
October 11, 2010 12:10 am  • 

Let’s call Montana’s two-year colleges what they are: colleges.

The colleges of technology in Billings, Butte, Havre, Helena, Great Falls, Dillon and Missoula have always struggled with their names. Once upon a time, they were “vo-techs.” Much more than the names have changed in recent years. Yes, students can still learn technical skills for good jobs in auto mechanics, welding, plant operation and construction. But in Billings, for example, they can also earn degrees in computer graphics, nursing, X-ray technology, culinary arts and more.

Students can complete two years of core classes at a Montana COT and then transfer those credits to a university and be halfway to a four-year degree the day they enroll.

COTs are offering more classes online as well as evening classes, high school completion courses for adults and college prep courses.

They have proven track records in responding to immediate local employer needs. For example, when Stillwater Mining Co. laid off workers a couple of years ago, the Montana State University Billings COT quickly activated its rapid response plan in partnership with Montana Job Service to offer retraining and adult scholarships to jobless workers.

COTs have outgrown their cumbersome names. The Montana University System plans on changing the COTs’ names within the coming year to reflect the fact that they have become community colleges, offering a full complement of lifelong learning opportunities to meet the needs of individuals and local business that need new or retrained workers.

The name change is just one point in the MUS agenda to improve two-year college education, Sheila Stearns, Montana commissioner of higher education, said in a visit with The Billings Gazette editorial board last week. Mary Moe, deputy commissioner of higher educations and former dean of the Great Falls COT, has been leading the “College Now” effort to increase two-year college enrollment by using a grant from the Lumina Foundation. Montana lags far behind its neighbors in the proportion of college students in two-year programs. Moe said only 25 percent of Montana college students are in two-year schools, compared with a 46 percent average in 15 other Western states. However, that Montana statistic is still an improvement over a meager 21 percent in 2007.

In addition to the COTs, publicly supported two-year colleges in this state include community colleges in Miles City, Glendive and Kalispell, seven tribal colleges and a new two-year program in Bozeman.

This fall, the MSUB COT enrolled a record-high 1,531 students. When John Cech became dean in fall 2002, there were only 620 students. Enrollment is up at both two-year colleges and four-year universities statewide this fall.

 Montanans still have a long way to go on increasing educational attainment. According to U.S. Census data, 38 percent of working age Montanans (25-64 years) hold at least a two-year college degree. However, 62 percent of Montana jobs will require postsecondary education by 2018, according to an analysis by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The College Now goal is 60 percent of the workforce having at least a two-year degree.

Stearns isn’t expecting an infusion of state funding to help reach that goal. Instead, she said, the focus must be on providing quality education efficiently.

“We’re doing a state-level approach to increase the number of graduates for no more dollars,” Moe said.

Three years ago in this column, we recognized that the Billings COT was close to fulfilling the mission of a community college and called for it to be known as a community college. It is a college now. Let’s give it a proper name.

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