On Oct. 5, Jill Biden will convene the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges. This summit will bring together community college administrators, faculty, students, business leaders, federal policymakers and philanthropic leaders to discuss how America’s community colleges will play a major role in reversing America’s declining place on the world stage in college degree attainment.

Janine Pease, Montana higher-education regent and vice president of Fort Peck Community College, and Jane Karas, president of Flathead Valley Community College and board member of the American Association of Community Colleges, were selected by the White House to serve as two of the 125 summit members and as the two representatives for Montana. They will be joined by participants including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen and Melinda Gates.

According to the College Board, in a single generation the United States has fallen from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults. Data from 2008 show Montana with 35 percent degree attainment (ages 25-34), which lags behind the national average of 39 percent and the average of leading nations, 55 percent. In order to keep pace with leading nations, the U.S. must produce 16 million more degree recipients above its projected output (48 million) by 2025. This is a daunting task.

College!Now initiative

Higher Education Commissioner Sheila Stearns and the Montana Board of Regents recognize the important role higher education must play in helping Montana and our nation to be competitive. As a result, Montana was recently selected by the Lumina Foundation for Education for a major multiyear grant titled College!Now, which is focused on increasing degree attainment at all levels with a special focus on Montana’s two-year colleges and two-year programs.

The goals of College!Now include:

• Creating a new focus on Montana’s two-year college programs as a way to increase college access and completion.

• Ensuring a statewide shared commitment toward improving access and college completion.

• Engaging new approaches and uses of technology to make education more accessible, student-responsive and affordable.

Montana’s two-year colleges have experienced incredible growth over the past 10 years. For example, the state’s five Colleges of Technology have increased their full-time-equivalent enrollment by 81 percent between 2000 and 2010, and the three community colleges have increased their FTE enrollment by 45 percent.

While it might be tempting to take a moment and enjoy the successes Montana’s two-year colleges have witnessed during the past 10 years, it is not enough. Montana still ranks near the bottom in percentage of students enrolled in its two-year colleges (21 percent in Montana compared to 48 percent nationally).

Shifting demographics

Age shifts will challenge Montana in fundamental ways. First, the number of 15- to 24-year-olds is expected to decline by 17 percent by the year 2017, reflecting predicted declines in K-12 enrollments that will translate into fewer traditional-age students seeking higher education. The number of 25- to 44-year-olds, or working adults, is expected to increase by 19 percent, challenging the state to create well-paying new jobs.

According to a recent analysis, 283,899 or 55 percent of Montana’s working-age adults are high school or GED graduates but do not have at least an associate degree. If Montana continues to increase degree attainment at the rate it did over the last decade, we will only reach 46.5 percent in 2025, which is still short of the degree attainment rates in other developed nations. To offer opportunities to students of all ages, and to support the state’s efforts at economic expansion, two-year education must work even harder over the next decade.

The participation by Pease and Karas in this first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, along with our recent statewide focus on two-year education, access, completion and the College!Now initiative, are positive steps toward strengthening two-year educational opportunities in Montana — creating pathways to employment, career advancement, and advanced degrees for more Montanans.

John E. Cech, Ph.D., is dean of the Montana State University Billings College of Technology and a member of the Montana University System College!Now steering committee.

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