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Shaping Two-Year Colleges to Better Suit Adult Learners

Montana has re-structured its two-year community colleges to better serve its growing population of non-traditional students. Photo by Kurhan.

The following interview is conducted with John Cech, the Deputy Commissioner for Two-Year and Community College Education with the Montana University System. The last time Cech spoke to The EvoLLLution, the state of Montana was developing a strategic overhaul of its college system. Montana is now re-naming all of its two-year Colleges and changing them to make them better suited to non-traditional, adult students. In this interview, Cech discusses how those changes are being implemented and some of the challenges and lessons that have come out of the process.

1. In the national context, Montana is near the bottom when it comes to its percentage of adults engaged in higher education, and only 40% of Montanans have an Associate’s Degree or higher. What were some of the main issues keeping adults out of higher education?

…Montana had probably one of the most confusing two-year college systems in the country. We have three comprehensive community colleges in the state, each having their own community college districts. …The names of those institutions will not be changing. What we had in place, in addition to those institutions, included a series of Colleges of Technology which have, according to the Board of Regents in Montana, have been asked to expand their respective mission to include the comprehensive community college mission. And then we had a series of two-year programs. …

What was happening in Montana, there was just a lot of confusion across the state about what was a comprehensive community college and a comprehensive two-year college, and people weren’t completely sure what these Colleges of Technology were. There was still a lot of misperceptions that the Colleges of Technology were still very similar to their former vocational, technical education center-selves and people weren’t viewing them as providing college-level material or transferable material.

That was a really important reason behind—first of all—the Board of Regents approving… the first-ever comprehensive two-year mission statement in the history of Montana which focuses on five elements of the comprehensive mission of a community college; university transfer, workforce development, developmental remedial education, community development and lifelong learning. …

Montana is near the bottom of the 14 Western states with respect to older students—students who are 25 to 34—enrolled in higher education. One of the reasons behind that… begin with my opening remarks which relate to misperceptions of particularly the Colleges of Technology and also the fact that the Colleges of Technology, which began their lives as vocational, technical institutions primarily offering non-transferable diploma types of programming, have been evolving at different stages to provide the comprehensive two-year mission. …

I think something else that has played a role across the state, and it goes back to the philosophy of providing higher education with respect to using a model that has existed for over 100 years, and that is primarily providing semester-based programs offered Monday through Friday between about 7 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. While not all of the colleges are exclusively offering programs during this time period, a significant percentage of the programming is offered during that time period, which makes it difficult for the older student to go back to school, to maintain a job and also manage a personal life with family and kids and so forth. That is changing and that is something we’re working very hard on through things like online learning, course and program redesign and so forth.

A couple of other things that have contributed to this include, particularly at the colleges which were formerly Colleges of Technology, a lack of supportive services such as child care and some of the key student services which are necessary to really support the learning environment. That’s something that we’re working on as well.

And finally, the large distances that we have across the state. If you were to overlay Montana on a map of the east coast, Northwest Montana would be over Chicago and Southeast Montana would be over Washington D.C. so it’s a very large state and we now have about a million people—and that’s it. So the good news is the Board of Regents, effective at the end of June, approved a new naming framework and new names for the colleges…  We’re communicating to all constituents that these are colleges and that they offer the comprehensive community college mission. Now the next step is to work on making some of the changes within the program design, the scheduling and the services provided to particularly better serve the non-traditional learner; the person 25-34.

2. Are all the changes being implemented at all the two-year colleges across the state, or are there going to be specific colleges which will be changed to be geared toward non-traditional learners?

We are one of the seven states in the nation to receive a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education… focused on productivity and degree attainment. … We’re a little more than midway through the grant and the support that we’ve had from that grant has allowed us to do a number of things. It’s been quite transformative.

One involves our common course numbering initiative. As of June 2012, more than 10,500 courses in over 60 disciplines have gone through the common course numbering process. This represents 100% of the undergraduate courses in the Montana University System and that’s important to note because… [similar courses across the two-year colleges or four-year universities] will transfer regardless. We’ve completed this effort across 100% of the undergraduate curriculum and that’s been quite significant.

Also, it’s important to just take a moment and talk about some of the changes in the enrollment growth in some of Montana’s colleges over the past five years. Student FTE (full-time equivalent) at our two-year campuses—which includes both the former colleges of technology and the three community colleges—has increased by 2,385 FTE, or 38%, which for us would be the equivalent of adding an institution to the system about the size of Montana Tech, which is a regional stem university.

In comparison, our aggregate growth rate at our four-year campuses over the same time period was 10%. So, 10% growth over the same time period at four-year campuses, 38% at the two-year campuses. The average growth at the five largest two-year providers… over this period was about 450 FTE, or 45% per campus. So we’ve witnesses a lot of growth and now with the help of the Lumina Foundation we’re starting to look at issues related to productivity, such as our developmental education courses and how we can redesign those developmental, remedial education courses—particularly in math—to increase the success rate of students and decrease the time to college-level coursework.

Some other areas I think we’ve had really good success with has been significantly growing our dual-enrollment, dual-credit courses, similarly to common course numbering we standardized the tuition of those courses, reducing the tuition significantly to make them more affordable. We’ve also created a common application process for those courses which has allowed us to grow our statewide dual-enrollment offerings by over 100% in the last year so we’re pretty excited about that.

3. It seems pretty important that you have restructured the two-year college programs to suit changing needs.

[As the oilfields of eastern Montana are becoming increasingly developed] it’s starting to have a negative impact on their enrollment because students are finding that they can secure work in oilfields—which are jobs that pay lucrative salaries—so the students are choosing to postpone going to college. That’s causing us to rethink our programming, our program design, and how we can begin the process of taking what may have been a year-long certificate and chunking it into modules. That way, we have modules or stackable credentials so that at least if a student is only able to go part-way through a certificate, we can present them with a certificate of completion for a chunk of it so that they have a credential when they return.

4. What are the lessons other states could learn from the changes happening in Montana?

I think one that I’m really proud of is the fact that our universities—both the flagship universities and the regional universities—are viewing this initiative, it’s called the CollegeNow! initiative… viewing it truly as a win-win. A win for the citizens and students of Montana, and ultimately I believe a win for the universities and all of higher education.

In other states, there’s a certain level of friction or a sense of competition between the community colleges system and the universities. So I think we have an advantage because we’re all part of one system—the Montana University System—but this win-win philosophy just didn’t occur overnight. It’s been the result of a lot of communication, significant efforts to engage the faculty and staff at both the two-year colleges as well as the universities, and I think we’ve benefited from buy-in and understanding from members of the Board of Regents who really see this initiative as leading to improved access for students and also flexibility—recognizing the fact that the mission of a comprehensive two-year college is very different from the mission of a flagship university. A flagship university is focused on baccalaureate, graduate and doctoral programs with a very heavy research mission, where the mission of the compressive two-year colleges in the state and across the country are really focused on access, providing affordable, supported opportunities for students to pursue, either the first two years of a baccalaureate degree or to prepare for employment through certificate or an associate of applied science degree.

That’s one of the real opportunities that we have in Montana right now, given that particularly the former Colleges of Technology historically didn’t have a transfer mission, given that they began their lives as vocational technical education centers. We’re now working with each of those institutions to make sure that they do offer the full transfer mission, the full [general education] core, and working with the universities t make sure that the students understand the pathways available to them once they complete an associate of science or an associate of arts degree at one of the two-year colleges to continue on at the university.

I think one of the things that is important there—we’re talking about flexible scheduling and flexible programming at the two-year level—the same thing needs to happen at the university level. The universities, if they’re going to receive particularly these non-traditional students… need to develop degree-completion programs that are flexible as well. Those students are not going to be able to go back to a Monday-Friday, 7:30-3 schedule if they continue on at the university.

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