Higher education officials are coming to Missoula and Hamilton this week asking Montanans about ways to improve two-year education and how the university system can better meet the public's needs.

The public meetings scheduled Friday in Missoula at the University of Montana's College of Technology and in Hamilton at the Bitterroot River Inn are part of a statewide listening tour hosted by the Commissioner's Office of Higher Education both to inform and gather feedback from the public on its COLLEGE!Now initiative.

State higher education officials have been pushing two-year education for several years now because "it's the most affordable option for the state system and students to fund," said Mary Moe, deputy commissioner for two-year education.

Flashback two years: The Lumina Foundation for Education offered grants to states that come up with innovative ways to increase the percentage of their citizenry who obtain a degree past high school and do so using performance-based funding methods rather than only enrollment. A year ago, Montana was one of seven states to receive a four-year, $1.77 million grant to boost the number of students who obtain two-year degrees and utilize two-year colleges.

There are 17 colleges across the state that offer two-year degrees. So far, the listening tour has taken members of the Board of Regents and Commissioner Sheila Stearns to Billings, Miles City, Glendive, Sidney, Glasgow, Poplar, Havre, Lewistown, Harlowton, Great Falls and Bozeman.

Enrollment at these two-year colleges has been increasing in recent years as the result of the economic downturn. Workers laid off from their jobs have returned to the classroom for retraining. But Moe would also like to see more high school students taking advantage of the state's two-year schools. Some can do so through dual enrollment, where high school students take college classes. Those credits can count towards a certificate or a four-year degree upon graduation from high school.

Only 25 percent of college students in Montana attend two-year schools, compared to about 45 percent in other Western states.

In Montana's grant proposal to the Lumina Foundation, the Montana University System reported its goal was to increase the attainment level of its citizenry from 35 percent in 2008 to 55 percent in 2025, an increase of 24,500 degree recipients.

And the two-year colleges are "a good place to start college," Moe said.

 

Yet, most students do not. The percentage of students who begin at a two-year college and transfer to a four-year college is "surprisingly low," Moe said. Around 370 students did so in 2009. Montana would like to increase that to 648 students by 2014.

Luring high school students who would otherwise enroll at a four-year university is not the goal. Rather, the state wants to reach out to new segments of the population, particularly adults, who may have otherwise not sought higher education.

"That's a hard nut to crack," she said. "We have to do something creative with that. Adults have different kinds of responsibilities and schedules."

Also, Montana wants to increase enrollment at its two-year colleges by 22 percent by 2014, and double the number of students who leave the two-year institution with a degree or certificate by the same time period.

In the last year, higher education leaders, including the Board of Regents, have worked on transferability and aligning curriculums so students can move seamlessly from colleges of technologies to four-year schools without having to repeat courses.

While Stearns hosts a series of statewide listening sessions every couple of years, this one focuses primarily on COLLEGE!Now, said Moe, who retires Friday. The Commissioner's Office of Higher Education recently performed a national search for her replacement.

That person will lead Montanan's two-year initiative into the future. Two finalists have been identified, Stearns said Monday before heading into a listening session in Bozeman. One of those two candidates should be hired within the month.

So far, Stearns has heard support of the state's emphasis on two-year education, but also received questions about how to fund increases in higher education at a time when there's less money. Stearns encourages the public to present questions and ideas for new programs at Friday's listening sessions. The session in Missoula is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the UM-COT, while the Hamilton session starts at 2 p.m. at the Bitterroot River Inn.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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