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Graduation
Adam Zyglis

There are 1,249 newly minted college graduates in circulation today.

Rocky Mountain College honored its 254 graduates Saturday afternoon at Fortin Education Center.

A few hours earlier at MetraPark’s Rimrock Auto Arena, Montana State University Billings awarded 995 students with degrees, including 148 master’s degrees and 286 associate degrees from City College.

We know that enrollment has declined in the past couple of years at most Montana university units. We know that too many students drop out before completing a degree; and many leave before finishing an academic year. Montana students depart college — with or without a degree – carrying a high debt load in a state with below-average family income.

Yet by one metric, Montana higher education has managed to up its game. Degree production in 2013-2014 was higher than at any time in the past 10 years, according to the Montana University System Data Warehouse. The MUS units awarded 6,697 degrees last year, compared with 5,740 in 2003-2004. The total number of degrees first topped 6,000 in 2010-2011 and has stayed above that level for four years.

Large class of 2015

Montana State University Billings has to make $4 million in budget cuts for next year because of enrollment decline. But on Saturday, it graduated an unusually large group. The City College class of 2015 earned more degrees than any other class, except for 2012 when 317 certificates and degrees were awarded. The 709 bachelor’s and master’s degrees MSU Billings conferred Saturday dwarfs past totals, surpassing the 553 degrees of 2003-2004.

It will be a tall order to recruit and retain new students to follow the class of 2015. Yet that is what MSU Billings leadership must do. Growing the university isn’t just a necessity for the university; it’s vital to our community and state. Most new jobs require post-secondary education. MSU Billings and RMC are integral to meeting the demand for highly skilled professionals.

Our regional medical center in Billings depends on local institutions for higher learning for staff members well prepared to handle the growing demands of our aging population. Our industries require specialized training to fill jobs in computer technology, natural resource development, manufacturing marketing, tourism and sales. We need highly qualified teachers to educate our children.

Montana’s unemployment rate dropped again in March, sinking to 4.1 percent, well below the national rate of 5.5 percent. The state has added 8,873 jobs in the first quarter of 2015, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Jobs for graduates

Yellowstone County’s unemployment rate was 3.6 percent, down 0.8 percentage points from a year ago. Yellowstone leads the state in the number of people working: 78,317.

From Gallatin County east, county jobless rates this spring are under 4 percent.

These economic statistics bode well for new graduates. The employment numbers add up to a very positive outlook for Montana.

Now our community and colleges must work to help more Montanans become college graduates, so they can share the benefits of our growing economy.

As we congratulate the graduates, we remind higher education leaders that there’s no time for them to rest on laurels and degrees. It’s time to recruit the next years’ classes.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.