Dawson Community College has come up with a novel way to attract more students — free tuition.
The Glendive college announced it would waive tuition for students in two programs over the next two semesters. One encourages high school students to take college courses. The other is for former students who need a few more classes to graduate.
Students still have to pay for fees and buy their books.
The tuition-free programs were introduced to pump up sliding enrollment at the two-year school.
In September, members of the Montana Board of Regents said they were concerned about declining student numbers at both Dawson and Miles Community College in Miles City.
Dawson’s enrollment dropped 22 percent between fall 2011 and this fall semester to about 259 students.
The number of students at Miles decreased more than 9 percent down to 368.
The number of students at each school reached as high as 500 full-time equivalent students at least once during the last decade.
Five of the nine other public campuses in Montana also had decreased enrollment over the last year, but by lesser percentages.
Not only are fewer students moving through secondary schools in Montana, those who graduate from high schools in Glendive and Sidney may be lured to high-paying jobs in the nearby Bakken oil fields instead of going to college, said James Cargill, DCC president.
Or they head to universities in other parts of the state.
The difficulty of finding affordable places to live in Glendive, also because of highly paid oil workers competing for limited housing, is another factor discouraging students from coming to Dawson, said Jackie Schultz, dean of instructional services.
It’s also harder for the college to find instructors for some technical programs in demand these days to replace people who leave.
The college cannot offer a diesel and gas mechanics class now because it can’t find an instructor to teach it on the salary offered. The school also has posted an opening for a welding technology instructor, which depending on experience and education, offers a salary range of between $27,504 and $36,000.
The tuition waiver is for the Early Start and Finish Line programs.
Local high school students, aged 16 and older, always have taken classes at Dawson at a reduced tuition.
Those students, including those who graduate from high school this year, now may take up to 10 credits in the spring semester and eight credits in the summer semester without paying tuition.
A similar program last summer waiving both tuition and fees drew five students.
Under the Finish Line program, students who have been away from campus for at least three years can take as many as 10 credits tuition-free to finish a degree.
Students could save more than $500 if they sign up for 10 credits.
Tuition for local students taking 10 credits is about $550 per semester and fees are $480.
Cargill doesn’t know how many students the tuition waivers will attract this time around, but he hopes that if a local high school student takes a class at the college, he or she will like the campus enough to complete a degree there.
Cargill is retiring as president at the end of this month after seven years on the job. He is returning to Kentucky where he had worked before coming to Montana.
Trustees will interview candidates for interim president soon and start the search for a permanent replacement for Cargill, said Jim Squires, chairman of the board.
Miles Community College faces the same forces drawing students away from DCC, said President Stefani Hicswa.
Energy development in the region that provides good jobs, plus “media hype” scaring people about taking out loans to go to school have decreased the number of students going to college, she said.
To attract students, MCC has several programs that train students for jobs that are in demand in oil, coal and pipeline development in the area, including heavy-equipment operation, building trades, computer technology and auto mechanics.
The college also is showing students how taking a certain group of classes, which might not fit in a traditional major, could train them for specific jobs.
Taking agriculture classes along with business and technology courses can prepare a student to become a landman researching property ownership in the oil fields, for example.
Miles also has started new programs to train students to be phlebotomists, pharmacy techs and medical lab techs to meet a growing demand in local health care facilities.
The college has popular non-credit courses to train students to become certified nurse assistants and commercial truck drivers.
Over the next semester, MCC will offer several condensed commercial driver’s license courses lasting from one to four weeks.