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4 of 6 Stories

Emphasizing Two-Year Programs
Montana's "Shared Leadership" project attempts a more collaborative approach to higher education

By Kathy Witkowsky
Great Falls, Montana

Kyle Baker grew up on a farm in central Montana, and graduated from high school in 1999. She didn't know what she wanted to do with her life, but that fall, she enrolled at Montana State University in Bozeman, 200 miles away. "It was the thing to do-to go to a four-year school," said Baker. The state operates six public four-year institutions, and is home to three private four-year colleges as well. But in Baker's mind, there were only two options: the main campus of the University of Montana in Missoula, or the main campus of Montana State in Bozeman. "I thought, 'Hippies go to Missoula, cowboys go to Bozeman,'" said Baker, explaining how she made her choice.

She earned A's and B's in her courses at MSU, but, she said, "I got nothing out of them." One semester and $6,000 later, she quit and joined the Navy.

"What a waste of money," said Baker, 24. Not that she is opposed to postsecondary education. Far from it: This summer she expects to graduate from a two-year practical-nursing program at MSU-Great Falls College of Technology; in the fall, she will re-enroll at MSU-Bozeman to get her RN degree.

In hindsight, Baker wishes she had started out in Great Falls, where tuition is considerably lower than at Bozeman. But that was an idea she never even considered. In fact, she said, although she grew up about 20 miles outside of Great Falls, "I didn't even really know there was a school here."

 
Nursing student Kyle Baker (left) practices on a mannequin at Great Falls College of Technology.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 

This is an all-too-familiar story, said Great Falls College of Technology Dean and CEO Mary Sheehy Moe, and it is one that frustrates her.

Only 21 percent of Montana's postsecondary students attend one of the state's 15 public two-year colleges (five of which are operated wholly by the university system), whereas nationally, the figure is nearly twice that: 39 percent of all postsecondary students are enrolled at two-year institutions. "What happens in Montana is they grow up thinking they're going to be Bobcats or Grizzlies," Moe said, referring to the sports teams of MSU-Bozeman and UM-Missoula, respectively. "So they go to one of these places but drop out after their freshman year."

Seventy percent of Montana's college students are enrolled at one of the state's public four-year institutions, but one-third of freshmen do not return for their sophomore year. And unlike Baker, many do not re-enroll: Only 42 percent of first-time, full-time college students complete a bachelor's degree within six years of matriculating; and only 1.9 percent of adults aged 25 to 49 are enrolled part-time in any kind of postsecondary education, the lowest percentage of any state in the nation.

  
Mary Sheehy Moe, dean and CEO at Great Falls College of Technology, hopes the Shared Leadership plan will lead more Montana students to attend public two-year colleges.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
"The end losers in that game are Montanans, because the market tells us that you can't make meaningful gains in income without a degree," said Mark Semmens, a member of the Montana Board of Regents, and an investment banker.

Beyond the fact that they're little-known, part of the reason for the state's disproportionately low enrollment at its university-operated two-year colleges might be the cost of tuition: At $2,876 for the coming academic year, it is less than two-thirds that of the state's public four-year schools, yet is still among the highest in the country for public two-year colleges. But perhaps the biggest problem, Moe said, is one of perception. The colleges of technology were connected to the K-12 system until 1987, and did not affiliate with MSU or UM until 1994, so they are still struggling for respect. "Montanans still kind of think it isn't college, and that it's a dead-end," said Moe.

But education officials say nothing could be farther from the truth, given the state's current and projected workforce needs. And they are hopeful that a new statewide emphasis on workforce development and access to education-precisely the missions of the university system's five two-year colleges-will mark a turning point for them and for the state. Nationally, Montana perennially ranks near the bottom when it comes to earnings; averaged from 2001 through 2003, the median household income was $34,375.

The new focus has emerged as a result of a directive from the Montana Board of Regents, which in 2003 instructed the chronically underfunded university system to take a more direct role in the state's economic development.

Called "Shared Leadership for a Stronger Montana Economy", the program grew out of an ad hoc working group comprised of representatives of state agencies and organizations. The group met between September 2003 and January 2004, when it formalized the process by developing a framework for a team of legislative, state agency, education, business and labor leaders, as well as an interim legislative committee, to consider key areas that higher education should address.

Within a few months, a long list of priorities was whittled down to three approved in July 2004 by the board of regents: workforce development; access to education; and distance learning. Steering committees comprised of volunteers from the public and private sector subsequently made specific policy recommendations relating to each of those goals. A number of them made their way into the 2005 legislature, where lawmakers approved $10.8 million worth of them.

The idea for Shared Leadership originated with John Mercer, who is chairman of the regents. He wanted to promote a more collaborative approach to higher education and change the nature of the funding arguments at the capitol. A Republican state representative for 16 years, eight of them as speaker of the house, Mercer watched his own party repeatedly turn away requests to increase higher education funding. But since being appointed to the board of regents in 2001, he has used his political acumen to lobby for the university system.

"Instead of it being all about what the university system needs, it's now all about what the state needs," Mercer said. "And as we accept and shoulder some of the problems and concerns of the state, the state is more receptive to us, and they are recognizing that the solution to many of those problems lies within education," Mercer said. And vice versa, he added, because without a healthy economy, there won't be any money to fund higher education. "We have to grow the state's economy in order to keep the system going," he said.

Over the past 12 years, the legislature steadily reduced state support for higher education relative to its cost. That left the board of regents little choice but to increase tuition, which went up 114 percent between 1994 and 2004; over the next two years, it is scheduled to go up another 17.2 percent, averaged over all campuses. The state's share of the cost of higher education has fallen from 74 percent in 1992 to 43 percent this year, forcing students and their families to pick up most of the balance with tuition and loans.

Montana earned an F for affordability on the 2004 "Measuring Up" report card published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (which also publishes National CrossTalk). The report noted that state and local appropriations for higher education total just $164 per capita, or $6 for $1,000 of income, and that annual college expenses at public institutions-including two-year colleges-amount to about one-third of family income.

In addition, the report said, Montana was offering a woeful average of $62 per student in need-based financial aid, far below the $240 average provided by its peer states in the west, and even farther below the national average of $316 per student.

The Shared Leadership program is an attempt to reverse that trend. This isn't the first time the state's education officials have tried to make the case that an educated citizenry benefits the economy. But those involved say this time around the effort is broader and more coordinated, and the message is more focused.

"There's always been an abundance of evidence that investing in higher education makes sense," said regent Mark Semmens. "What was missing, I think, was an extensive, well-executed process to draw in policymakers, business people and the public."

Also missing was a commissioner who could effectively make the case for higher education. Now Montana has Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns, a soft-spoken, widely respected Montana native who took over her current position in September 2003. She had been serving as president of Wayne State College in Nebraska, and before that, as chancellor at University of Montana-Western in Dillon, Montana. A Democrat in her personal life, she has managed to remain above the political fray in her public life, earning enthusiastic praise from members of both parties.

"Sheila Stearns has got the most fabulous communication and organizational skills of any person that has ever been on the scene in Montana, period," said Mercer. "And so she's uniquely qualified to lead this effort because she has a very disarming personality. She's friendly and intelligent, and she's the sort of person that people like to work with, and they trust her. So she can kind of carry that message for the university system, as well as being the focal point for transmitting that information between the university and the leaders of the state."

The message is this, said Stearns: "Higher education is now more vital to the future of the state than probably ever before in its history." Traditionally, the state's economy has been heavily tied to natural resources-timber, mining and agriculture. But as those industries decline as a proportion of the state's economy, the answer is no longer "tradition," she said. "It's education."

The legislature (where Democrats control the Senate, and the House is split 50-50) appears to be listening: In April, it passed a new biennial budget that includes $10.8 million in the general fund for proposals related to Shared Leadership. Among them is the $1.5 million Governor's Postsecondary Scholarship Program, a scaled-back version of one proposed by Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer, who spoke repeatedly about higher education during his campaign, and who attended a Shared Leadership meeting the day after he was elected last November.

What was his reaction to Shared Leadership? "Wonderful," Schweitzer said. "The governor bought it," he said, referring to himself. So, apparently, did the legislature, which approved not only the scholarship program but a one-time-only increase of $470,000 for the need-based Montana Higher Education Grant program. Lawmakers also appropriated tens of millions more dollars for higher education construction, maintenance and programs, much of which is earmarked for two-year colleges.

But the money will not reduce the burden on most students when it comes to paying for their education: Education officials are still crunching the numbers, but preliminary figures indicate that the state's share of that cost might also decrease, from 43 percent to 39 percent.

That means Commissioner Stearns is no closer-and in fact may be farther-from her goal of getting Montana to pick up at least half that tab. Where will the money come from? "From a wealthier state," said Stearns. And ultimately, that means getting a larger percentage of students into postsecondary education.

Between 2000 and 2015, Montana's population, which is currently the sixth oldest in the U.S., is projected to grow by 12.5 percent. During roughly the same period, the number of high school graduates is expected to decline by nearly 21 percent. That adds up to a massive shortage of workers, the majority of whom will require some sort of postsecondary education, said David Gibson, who in January left his position as head of the governor's Office of Economic Opportunity to fill the newly created position of associate commissioner of higher education for economic development.

Montana scores pretty well when it comes to high school graduation rates: 95 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds have a high school diploma or equivalent, as do 90 percent of all adults. "But if we don't improve the rate at which we get them into postsecondary education, we are going to suck wind," said Gibson, a Montana native who holds degrees from Harvard and Dartmouth, and is as blunt as his boss is diplomatic.

 
Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns hopes Shared Leadership will lead to more state spending on public colleges and universities.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 

According to Montana Department of Labor and Industry projections, jobs in the low-paying service sector top the list of future employment openings. But there will also be significant demand for more highly skilled-and higher paid-employees, such as registered nurses, construction managers, carpenters and auto mechanics.

And the state's two-year schools will be key to training them, according to Gibson. "Every high-paying job in the state over time is going to require skills beyond high school," he said. "The starting point-the one that resonates the quickest, is increasing the number of people who realize that we need a really strong two-year college system to complement the four-year system."

That notion certainly resonates with the business community, said Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, who has been involved with Shared Leadership from the beginning. "We've always felt that the two-year colleges have been the poor stepchild of the university system. And yet what we hear from our members is that's where the focus needs to be put," said Brown. "Manufacturing is screaming for people who just have basic science and math skills. And the healthcare industry-there's a whole lot of folks they need that don't require a four-year degree."

Nearly a third of the state's 980 new annual scholarships that will be created over the next two years specifically target students going into those fields: 100 annual need-based scholarships of $1,000 each are earmarked for students enrolled in two-year health-sciences programs, and another 220 annual need-based scholarships of $1,000 each are earmarked for students enrolled in two-year technology programs.

 
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer is a strong supporter of the new Shared Leadership plan for higher education.
(Photo by Rod Searcey for CrossTalk)
 
The program also creates 180 more need-based and 255 more merit-based scholarships (one for each of Montana's 185 high schools, and the rest handed out at-large) of $1,000 each, to be awarded to students enrolled in any two-year programs. Each of Montana's 185 high schools will also receive $1,000 scholarships for students enrolled in four-year programs. In addition, 40 $2,000 merit-based scholarships for students in four-year programs will be handed out at large.

But the system's two-year schools are bursting at the seams. In the past decade, enrollment has increased by about 50 percent. Without more money, the schools would not be able to take on a larger role.

Several bills passed this legislative session should help. A bonding bill provides $27.5 million in building funds for overcrowded two-year schools to expand. And the general appropriations bill provides $3 million over the next biennium to replace and upgrade equipment for two-year programs, and an additional $1.4 million to develop two-year programs. (It also provides $300,000 to each of the state's three community colleges that are not owned by the state university system.) Another $300,000 has been allocated for distance learning.

That is not nearly enough to address all the needs, said Gibson, but it's a start. Now the task is for the university system to train some new workers, and it must do so before the legislature convenes again in 2007. "We have to have people stand up in the next legislative session and say we solved problems, or we have no prayer of getting more money," said Gibson.

The presidents of both major state universities support that approach.

"I believe the state of Montana has under-invested in two-year education," said Montana State President Geoffrey Gamble, before adding, "That doesn't mean they've fully invested in four-year (education)."

University of Montana President George Dennison agreed. "We didn't get to this position in higher education overnight," said Dennison, who, in nearly 15 years as president, has struggled repeatedly with funding issues. "To turn it around is going to take a lot of hard work, discussion and success...I think this is a great opportunity, and if we miss it, it's our fault."

In other words, the pressure is on.

"When we start talking about liberal arts, I do lose my enthusiasm for increased funding, because I don't think that those types of studies are particularly relevant to the needs of our students and the state," said Republican state Senator Greg Barkus, one of four legislators who served on the interim legislative committee focused on Shared Leadership. But, he said, "If the university system demonstrates that their programs and the system itself is more relevant to Montana, I think they should get more money."

Other lawmakers, though, said that the new emphasis on workforce training and economic development raises concerns. "It makes sense to try to make Montana's educational system attractive to industry," said Democratic state Senator Don Ryan, who served alongside Barkus on the interim committee. But at the same time, he said, "Our university system shouldn't just become a jobs program." He added, "Learning to reason and think-that's what provides for a civilized society."

Commissioner Stearns and Associate Commissioner Gibson said they have no intention of abandoning the core mission of the university system. But, said Gibson, "If you think you're going to grow your economy and provide the workers you need with only a four-year system, your head is buried in the sand. A university system must have a great four-year system and a great two-year system-the two go hand in hand."

Achieving that might be a challenge, in part due to the state's bitter partisan politics.

Shared Leadership was designed to be bipartisan, but some Democrats see these as code words for the previous Republican-dominated administration, under which it began, said Stearns. Republicans, meanwhile, tabled a senate resolution in support of Shared Leadership after Democrats introduced amendments singling out Democratic Governor Schweitzer for credit.

Earlier in the session, Schweitzer had incurred the wrath of Republicans when he opposed the confirmation of two regents appointed by his Republican predecessor, Judy Martz. Schweitzer said he objected to seating Mike Foster, a former aide to Martz, and student Kala French, not because of their politics but because they were registered lobbyists, which he said violated ethical standards. Both nominees subsequently resigned their lobbying posts and were confirmed by the state senate, but not before Schweitzer was publicly blasted by regents chair John Mercer.

Despite these political wranglings, David Gibson said he plans to keep the legislature involved, and that he and Stearns will continue to pursue the long list of goals established during the Shared Leadership process: identifying and targeting the state's most critical program and equipment needs; solving workforce shortages; expanding an advertising campaign for the state's two-year programs; overseeing the systemwide standardization of two-year programs; creating a systemwide position to begin coordinating aspects of distance learning; and developing a sustained communications and outreach campaign and a statewide initiative to encourage businesses, private organizations and individuals to mentor Montana students.

Commissioner Stearns is doggedly optimistic about their chances of success. In the near future, she said, she believes that the state's higher education system could, and should, be a national role model. "In 2010 and 2020," Stearns predicted, "people will open their eyes and say, 'What began to happen in Montana?'"


Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana, and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.

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National CrossTalk Summer 2005

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