News - Op-Eds

Change is in the Air for Montana's Two-Year Colleges

By John E. Cech, PhD, Deputy Commissioner for Two-Year and Community College Education for the Montana University System in Helena, MT
(Guest Editorial Published May 26, 2011, Billings Gazette

Friday, May 20, 2011 was an historic day for higher education in Montana.  The Montana Board of Regents voted unanimously to adopt Montana’s first comprehensive two-year education mission and vision for the state’s public two-year colleges setting the stage for growth, diversification, and rebranding of Montana’s five Colleges of Technology each connected to one of Montana’s Universities.

The Board’s adoption of the comprehensive two-year mission and vision document is important because the document will serve to drive all future strategic planning for the State’s public two-year colleges. 

Montana’s public two-year colleges include three comprehensive community colleges (FVCC, DCC, & MCC), five Colleges of Technology (Billings, Butte, Great Falls, Missoula, & Helena), and two year programs in Bozeman, Havre, Lewistown, Dillon, and Hamilton.

Montana’s two-year education opportunities represent the fastest growing segment of higher education in the state with 81 percent growth in enrollment over the past ten years.  Our public two-year colleges provide traditional and nontraditional students with affordable and accessible learning opportunities leading to either direct employment or transfer to one of our universities. 

Our two-year colleges and programs are responsible for preparing students to support the basic infrastructure of our state through diverse programs ranging from radiology, nursing, information technology, fire science, paramedic, construction, and welding to business administration and a variety of traditional and alternative energy programs.  They also provide affordable educational opportunities for students to earn their first two years of a baccalaureate degree.

Montana’s new comprehensive two-year education mission is centered around the attributes of the comprehensive community college mission which include:

  • Transfer Education Through the Associate’s Degree

  • Workforce Development, Including Certificates and Applied Associate’s Degrees

  • Development and Adult Basic Education

  • Lifelong Learning

  • Community Development

The new mission of Montana’s two-year colleges emphasizes the importance of being student-centered, accessible, and responsive. 

By Fall 2013, through the State’s College!NOW initiative (funded by the Lumina Foundation), Montana’s two-year leaders have been directed by Board of Regents to implement the comprehensive two-year mission in each of the State’s five Colleges of Technology. The Governor has also endorsed these goals.  This work will involve the transformation and ultimate rebranding of the State’s COTs so that each will provide the citizens of their communities, young and old, the full array of services found in a comprehensive community college.

Other important College!NOW initiatives include the creation of new partnerships with Montana’s seven tribal colleges, secondary schools, and business and industry, expanding dual-enrollment opportunities, improved coordination and alignment of curricula, development of performance based funding models, and improved public awareness through strategic communication initiatives.  In their May 20th motion of approval, the Board has asked for the Deputy Commissioner for Two Year and Community College Education to provide updates on the progress of this work at each subsequent Board of Regents meeting.

Over the past ten years, Montana’s public two-year colleges have become increasingly important contributors to new educational opportunities and pathways for our citizens and State.  In 2001, enrollment in Montana’s public two-year colleges represented only 17% of the State’s undergraduate enrollment.  By 2011 that figure has grown to 29 percent.  Our goal is to reach 46 percent by 2020, ultimately increasing the number of credentialed Montanans.

Stay tuned, change is in the air!

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Statewide Effort Improves College Entrants' Writing Skills

By Sheila M. Stearns, Commissioner of Higher Education
(Published February 28, 2010, Billings Gazette)

In his Jan. 24 guest opinion, Dr. Woodrow Jensen challenged readers to "think of a statewide, major reform or innovation, fully implemented, resulting in significantly greater or different student achievement for the majority of our students." The Montana University System Writing Assessment (MUSWA) is celebrating its 10th anniversary this spring, testing juniors in 135 high schools that voluntarily participate in this major reform designed to improve student achievement in writing. Between 2001 and 2009, the percentage of juniors who place into college-level composition courses, rather than remedial courses, has risen from 38 percent to 71 percent — a remarkable success story.

Through this reform, the Montana University System has built a network of educators who develop and administer the exam for 80 percent of the state's high school juniors. Beginning Feb. 1 each year, nearly 9,000 students from throughout Montana, from schools as large as Billings West to those as small as Whitewater, start testing. They have the option of using traditional test booklets or an online Web site. Both options are free to the student. The scoring process begins when 50 or more academic leaders join for intensive two-day training sessions. They in turn conduct training for approximately 320 teachers at eight regional sites throughout Montana, who collectively score 9,000 essays, each of which must be read by at least two scorers.

By April 20, most Montana high school juniors will know if they are college-ready in writing. The MUSWA is the most widely used of three possible tests (including ACT and SAT) that place traditional students into their college composition courses. Many will anxiously await the "Letters of Recognition" reserved for students with top scores. Some, whose scores do not pass muster, will buckle down during their senior year and retake the test, hoping to improve before going on to college.

Dr. Jan Clinard in the office of the commissioner of higher education has led this reform effort. She works with a steadily expanding group of colleagues in the Office of Public Instruction, teacher education programs, and high school English departments. Student writing continues to improve.

When this project began, many high school teachers did not know what kinds of writing would be required of their students upon entry to college and how college instructors would grade that writing. Now, not only do teachers have a better understanding of how to teach writing, their school districts support them in professional development for improving writing instruction. Research on the strengths and weaknesses in student writing and information for high schools about their particular challenges continues to grow.

Looking for an example of significant and successful reform? The university system's annual statewide writing assessment for high school students, a collaborative secondary-postsecondary project, is an innovation that has resulted in significantly greater student achievement. That's the kind of reform that matters.

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Working to Keep College Affordable

By Sheila M. Stearns, Commissioner of Higher Education
(Published: December 2009 in newspapers throughout Montana)

Given recent news reports, you might not know we are in the middle of a four-year tuition freeze at most state colleges and universities. The Montana University System received some press coverage a couple of weeks ago for discussing what might happen if the state were to reduce college and university funding in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years.

Discussing potential issues and possible solutions is only prudent. Unfortunately, sometimes even the fact that a discussion occurred makes news. In this case, one of the "what if's" that made the news was the subject of tuition.

For most of the last 25 years, the state has steadily reduced state-funded appropriations (in constant dollars) per student, so the regents routinely consider whether it will be necessary to make up the difference. Fortunately, with strong support from the governor and the legislature, through the College Affordability Plan, the Montana Board of Regents has kept tuition frozen at fall 2006 levels on 9 of the 11 public campuses. Tuition at those 9 units will remain frozen at the fall 2006 level through spring 2011.

Last May, weighing the state legislative appropriation against students' educational needs, the Board of Regents voted to increase tuition at Montana State University in Bozeman and at The University of Montana in Missoula by 3 percent following two years of a tuition freeze at 2006 levels. Nationally, a 3 percent increase is very modest, but the regents did their best to balance the interests of the students with the interests of the state's taxpayers. The tuition decision was publicized to all new and returning UM and MSU students last summer and implemented at the start of the current fall semester.

What doesn't seem to make the news is the fact that regents and campus leaders spend far more time creating efficiencies than they do pondering tuition revenue. An independent national study placed UM and MSU at the lowest in the country in per-student spending for similar universities. To accomplish this level of efficiency while still receiving many awards for their quality of education is remarkable.

Although Montana is already the lowest cost-per-student provider in the country, the Regents' Reform Workgroup was recently created to analyze additional cost-saving and revenue-generating options for increasing efficiency, cost-control, distance learning, two-year degrees, and early college for high school students.

The Regents' Reform Workgroup meetings are publicly noticed on the website. Keeping college affordable in Montana is an interest we all share. We invite all interested citizens, especially students, to join us in this effort.

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