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Caps, gowns and graduates filled MetraPark's arena and Rocky Mountain College's gym last weekend. Even in the midst of rising unemployment nationally, the class of 2003 has reason for optimism.

As RMC President Thomas Oates noted in his "charge to the graduates," the class of 2003 includes people trained for important careers: 20 are graduating physician assistants who will be providing medical care; nine will be teaching schoolchildren, 28 are business and accounting graduates who may be helping people with tax filings by next spring.

Generally, about 82 percent of all Montana State University-Billings graduates find jobs in Montana, where unemployment rates are bucking the national trend and remaining relatively low.

"Most of our kids will stay home," MSU-Billings Chancellor Ron Sexton said Thursday. "I'm optimistic. "I would not expect our placement rate to drop."

"In most areas, the number of people on campus hiring has been as good or better than any year," Sexton said.

But there is a troubling trend in the hiring of new teachers. A nationwide shortage has drawn recruiters to Billings from all over Montana and several other states. In years past, more than 90 percent of MSU-B education grads have taken jobs in Montana schools. That number is dropping because other states are offering starting salaries $10,000 higher than Montana schools as well as incentives such as student loan repayment, housing subsidies, moving expenses — even signing bonuses.

Montana graduates

Most students earning higher-education degrees in Billings are Montanans.

At MSU-Billings, 91 percent of fall 2002 students were Montana residents. Montana State University-Billings conferred 814 degrees Saturday, including 165 at the College of Technology, 115 in the College of Business and 277 in the College of Education and Human Services.

At RMC, 112 of 179 graduates (the largest number of grads in the college's history) last weekend were from Montana. Others came from 18 other states, from Wyoming and the Dakotas to Alaska and Pennsylvania.

Proposals for Montana teacher loan repayment programs and signing bonuses died in the 2003 Legislature. Billings District 2 has notified nontenured that they might not have jobs here next year — leaving little inducement for new grads to apply in Billings.

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Montana must compete for teachers in a national market.

For the state with the nation's lowest average wages, higher education is critical. College graduates — those with certificates, two-year degrees and four-year degrees — will earn exponentially more over a lifetime than will workers with no post-secondary education. These higher earners will pay more taxes and invest more money to expand Montana's economy. They will fill the demand for skilled and well-trained workers.

As we congratulate the class of 2003, we must consider prospects for the classes of '04, '05 and beyond. The mantra of Montana leaders had been "economic development." The means to that goal is higher education.

It is getting harder for the average Montanan to afford higher education and to make a career in his or her home state. Montana must stop the "brain drain" — not just for the graduates' sake, but for our state's economic survival.

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