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Eastern Montana’s two community colleges are holding their own, but haven’t seen the growth that other two-year colleges in the state have.

Both Miles Community College in Miles City and Dawson Community College in Glendive had slight increases in enrollment this fall.

Miles’ fall enrollment of more than 460 full-time-equivalent students is a more than 3 percent increase over fall 2008 enrollment of about 446, said MCC President Stefani Hicswa.

This semester’s total would have been higher if it included dual-enrollment students — local high school students taking classes at the community college.

This fall 60 high school students are taking MCC classes, which would equal about an additional 25 FTE students.

Dawson Community College’s fall enrollment of 466 FTE students is up nearly 4 percent over last fall, said President Jim Cargill.

Although those increases are welcome, they don’t come close to larger enrollment jumps at some two-year campuses in other parts of the state.

Montana State University Billings College of Technology fall enrollment jumped more than 61 percent. Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell increased 37 percent, with a few others registering 20 percent increases or more.

A deep recession, which traditionally sends more students to school, played a role in those increases along with other factors.

Because Eastern Montana hasn’t experienced the economic booms and busts like other parts of the state, the region doesn’t have as many displaced workers returning to school.

Although oil drilling has slowed and the railroad laid off some workers, Glendive hasn’t had the large number of unemployed that some parts of Western Montana have had, Cargill said.

The declining population of Eastern Montana also has shrunk the pool of potential students from which the two schools can recruit.

Keeping up enrollments is difficult when a college is located in a sparsely populated region where several colleges are competing for the same students.

Dickinson State University in Dickinson, N.D., 92 miles from Glendive, offers tuition and fees to Montana and South Dakota students at about half the cost it charges many other out-of-state students.

However what Dickinson charges Montana students is more than twice the $2,700 cost of a year at Dawson.

Miles tuition is about $2,736 for students from Custer County.

Both schools are turning the tables and recruiting students from around the region.

MCC’s Grow Montana program shifted recruitment of students from Western Montana to a 500-mile radius that reaches into the Dakotas, Northern Wyoming and Southern Saskatchewan, Canada. Those students may attend Miles at the same tuition as Montana students do.

Dawson, about 150 miles south of the Canadian border, also offers a special tuition rate to Canadian students.

Dawson now has about 20 international students, including those from Germany, Albania, France and Croatia.

Both schools would welcome more students.

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Both colleges have student-faculty ratios of about 11 — or less — to one. While that means that students receive a lot of individual attention, many classrooms have room for more students.

Low cost and small classes are but two of several reasons students go to Dawson or Miles.

In 2007, Dawson completed a new building with a 2,000-seat gymnasium and 300-seat performing arts center that has help attract athletes and enhanced the school’s music and theater programs.

For a small school, Dawson has a strong music department, said Cargill, who is a musician himself.

Dawson also recently doubled the size of its library.

In 2003, Miles completed a $2.3 million dormitory. Miles recently added 14, one- and two-year workforce programs, including those in heavy-equipment operation, insurance and biofuels.

A popular equine program teaches management of horses and how to run to a stable.

“A great fit for rodeo students,” Hicswa said.

With a small enrollment, Dawson operates on a “lean and mean” budget, Cargill said. Many departments, such as financial aid, operated with only one employee.

Cargill also answers his own phone.

Dawson and Miles different in other ways from colleges of technology, which grew out of the old vocational-technical system and are now part of public four-year universities.

Dawson and Miles, which were created about 70 years ago, have local boards of directors and receive local tax funding.

Of Dawson’s total revenue, about 51 percent comes from the state, 25 percent from county residents and a little less than 25 percent from student tuition and fees.

Dawson and Miles also are affiliated with the Montana University System, which approves for-credit courses, tuition and their budgets.

This year the two schools also each received $700,000 in federal stimulus funds appropriated by the 2009 Montana Legislature.

Dawson will use the money to replace a leaky, 40-year-old roof on the campus’ main building. The new roof will be insulated to increase energy efficiency.

Miles will use stimulus money to chip away at its list of $10 million in deferred maintenance projects, Hicswa said.

Among items at the top of the list is a new heating and cooling unit to replace a 40-year-old system. New windows also are being considered. One office window is so leaky that plastic sheeting has to be put up each winter to keep out snow.

The stimulus money will put the school 10 years ahead of its previous plan to take care of deferred maintenance on campus.

“It’s huge,” Hicswa said.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

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