A just-released consultant's plan prepared for the Bitterroot College Program of the University of Montana predicts the school could grow to 1,200 students by 2020, and would need 50,000 square feet of classroom and facility space.

The report, from California-based consultants Michael Maas and Dan Rosenberg, is based on Montana college trends, the valley's demographics, and the results from a survey handed out by the college this spring that nearly 800 people responded to.

Rosenberg, the report's analyst, said that the valley was ripe for an explosion in interest in the local college over the coming years.

"The information tells me there is a tremendous opportunity for people to come and take community college offerings," Rosenberg said.

The University of Montana's Bitterroot College Program currently has a budget of $140,221 and 74 students enrolled in classes like Introduction to American Government and Anatomy.

A detailed demographics study, Rosenberg said, showed that the valley in coming years is projected to see a disproportionate increase in the number of seniors and in the number of adults aged 20 to 34 -- the prime community college years. Meanwhile, a dearth of local options up until now means many students are traveling for classes they'd rather take locally, while a growing campus will actually serve to attract more fresh-out-of-high-school students who yearn for a traditional campus experience that the local college is not now offering but may as it expands.

"It's all a sign that local education is what is needed," Rosenberg said.

The county lags the state average in the percentage of residents who have an associate, bachelor or advanced degree, Rosenberg said.

"That tells me," he said, "that there is a tremendous opportunity for people to come back and take community college offerings."

While huge growth is projected at the school, actual growth is much slower. This spring the college's steering committee approved the hiring of a part-time assistant to help Victoria Clark, the college's interim director. Money has yet to come from Missoula for that employee. Earlier this week, John Robinson, chairman of the steering committee, wrote to the university's leadership, stating a growing program needs a flexible budget.

"We can't always operate within constraints," Robinson said. "We need an assistant director, and we need it now."

For fiscal year 2010, the college overspent its budget by more than $43,000, with most of the overages going toward contracted faculty, rent and miscellaneous services.

Rosenberg told the steering committee that college facilities construction takes a very long time to complete due to a variety of issues. Once funding is identified it's often five years until any building is ready to move into, he said.

"We recommend you continue planning and take steps for the future so you don't get caught up in being behind," he said. "This college would grow right now if you had the right (course) offerings."

Robinson has suggested that in order to reach its full potential, the Bitterroot College Program needs a high degree of self-determination.

"We need autonomy," he wrote recently to steering committee members. "We have to be able to make decision without filtering all of them through the (College of Technology) and the university. We have to have a strong degree of local control."


Reach reporter Jeff Schmerker at 363-3300 or at jeff.schmerker@ravallirepublic.com.


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