Montana’s two-year colleges have a tough task: How to increase enrollment closer to regional and national rates, while doing a better job with the students and programs they already have?

Monday, about 100 leaders of Montana’s two-year colleges — representing every such college and program in the University of Montana system — heard from a national leader on the matter that the state is in a tough spot.

“You’re going to be serving three meals a day while you’re refurbishing the kitchen,” said Terry O’Banion, who has written 14 books on community colleges, led a major community college group for 23 years, and had key role in the growth of such colleges for half a century.

At “A Day With Dr. Terry O’Banion: Student Success and Completion,” state academics put their heads together on how to get students not just into college, but to stick with it and come out with a degree and a marketable skill.

That’s a big part of O’Banion’s message: moving the goal from mere “access,” which has largely been accomplished, to “success,” which still faces big challenges, statewide and nationally.

About one in seven students who register never complete a single credit, according O’Banion. About half drop out by the second year.

The open-door policy of the colleges also means that many are ill-prepared and need further developmental coursework. But one-third of those recommended for such courses never take them, he said.

Community colleges need to take a more active role in spotting red flags early — way before midterm exams, he said. A student misses two of the first three classes, or didn’t fill out a required form? Staff needs to intervene, he said.

They should also celebrate successes and mileposts well before graduation. Why not a letter of congratulations from the college president upon completion of a student’s first college credits?

Even a security guard telling a student to park somewhere else could discourage them from coming back, he said.

And then there are the forms.

“The language in there, a lawyer could not understand,” O’Banion said. He told of one that included three different sentences threatening jail time for various violations.

Montana’s registration forms, he added, are a simple two-page job he said he would use as a model for other schools.

The university system is working to transform its two-year colleges to serve their communities with a program called College!Now, fueled by a $1.77 million grant from the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education. Strategies 360 Montana, based in Helena, is the consultant for the initiative. That grant brought O’Banion to Montana.

Montana can use the push. In 2001, about 17 percent of undergraduates statewide were enrolled at public two-year colleges, compared to a national rate of 45 percent, said John Cech, the university system’s deputy commissioner for two-year and community college education. Now, the colleges’ enrollment has grown by about 90 percent (measured by full-time enrollment equivalents) and those students make up about one-quarter of all undergraduates.

“We still have huge opportunities in Montana to expand the outreach and enrollment of our two-year colleges and the Lumina grant, the College!Now grant, is really helping us do that,” he said.

Among other moves, the University Board of Regents has frozen tuition at the public two-year colleges for this year and next, he said. The independent community colleges (Flathead Valley, Dawson and Miles City) have only small increases.

The stakes are high. O’Banion said the United States is now 10th in the world in its rate of college graduates, after once leading that category. Compared with nations like China, we’re not a culture that values hard work and respects teachers, he said.

So there’s a broad push for more enrollment nationwide. O’Banion said the Obama administration wants to produce 5 million more graduates that previously predicted by 2020. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants to double the number of community college graduates and has $475 million dedicated to a related initiative.

Among other changes, the University of Montana-Helena College of Technology could have a new name; part of the initiative is to rename and re-brand the state’s five colleges of technology.

“We feel the name ‘College of Technology’ no longer accurately reflects the breadth of the mission that colleges like UM-Helena have,” said Cech.

One Montana educator asked what to tell taxpayers about community colleges. O’Banion lamented that 15 years ago, you rarely heard that question. He suggested maybe asking people if they would rather build prisons instead.

O’Banion noted that by many measures, the community college system has been an enormous success, bringing higher education to more and more people with various needs. Some 11 million people are in community colleges nationwide, and the colleges are the first step for vast numbers of nurses, police officers, firefighters and EMTs — 80 percent of first responders, he said.

“We do a lot of things really well,” he said.

Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086 or


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