Expanding Access to Higher Education for Rural Montana Students – The 74


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Rural communities, where one in five Americans currently live, have significantly lower higher education completion rates than urban Americans. Only 19.5% of rural adults have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 29% of urban adults. This reflects a history of focusing education and workforce development policies on urban areas of the country – and the impact of these policies is evident on workforce development in the United States. United. Rural adults have accounted for less than 3% of national job growth since 2001.

With rural industries like mining, carpentry and agriculture in steep decline, post-secondary degrees are increasingly important for social mobility. This means the nation can no longer afford to ignore the challenges facing rural states and their colleges and universities. Communities are not getting the skilled professionals they need for jobs because students are not getting the education they need. Creating a sustainable workforce and healthy communities across the country depends on addressing issues of rural access to higher education.

The question of how to do this has been central to my work. As Director of Academic Policy and Research for the Montana University System, I am keenly aware of the country’s need to better support institutions, students, and rural communities. Vast in size but sparsely populated, Montana has built a proud university system of 16 campuses, including six four-year and 10 two-year institutions, serving approximately 40,000 students in 147,000 square miles. Yet the need for more sustainable and cost-effective methods to support rural communities, institutions and students has grown as enrollment, resources and state funding come under increasing pressure.

Like most rural states, Montana relies on a relatively sparse population and a limited tax base. Individually, the state’s public colleges are unable to offer the full range of academic offerings that students need – and want – to graduate. Even if there is significant local need, it is not viable to develop expensive university programs for, say, cohorts of only five students. As a result, colleges and universities in Montana struggle to provide local communities with the various degrees and programs required for 21st century workforce development.

Additionally, rural students, one of the largest and most vulnerable populations in the university system, often face complex challenges in obtaining post-secondary degrees and credentials due to their geographic remoteness. For us to succeed as a university system and as a state, it is critically important to expand the reach and effectiveness of the programs that students depend on to thrive in their careers and in life.

One of the most effective and empowering solutions to these challenges has been to activate powerful, technology-driven course and program sharing partnerships. Through a technology partnership with Quottly and targeted investments in distance service delivery and workforce training, our colleges and universities are providing broader and more sustainable access to leading academic programs for rural students. from Montana.

For example, a student might have to drive five hours each way to attend an in-person program if it is not offered at a local campus. But by sharing courses, campuses can expand their reach by offering some courses online and delivering other courses in person or in a hybrid format from the student’s local campus. The result is a collaboration that reduces the cost – and the risk of developing new courses with little or no enrollment – ​​for colleges looking to offer courses their communities need and flexible learning experiences for students. who benefit from an in-person connection with their local Campus.

Expanding this collaborative model will allow Montana to provide high-quality educational and career paths to more rural students by leveraging the full power of its 16 campuses. And as we apply these course-sharing partnerships to some of our greatest challenges, we are able to meet student needs while meeting community and state labor demands.

Many of these program challenges center on health care, which is one of Montana’s biggest job drivers — it’s bigger than the service, retail, or travel industries — and is ready for growth. These specialties provide diagnostic, technical, therapeutic and support services related to health care and pay very well. But in working with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry to develop new employment opportunities, we recognized that the university system is not training the sonographers, dietitians, physical therapy assistants, radiographers and other allied health specialists whose state needs.

Today, our shared course and program partnerships allow us to be much more strategic in deploying campus resources. Working together, our colleges offer courses in Paramedicine, Licensed Practical Nursing, Surgical Technology, Respiratory Care, and Introduction to Health Professions, and we plan to expand these collaborations to include phlebotomy education. , dental hygiene, and ultrasound technology, among others, to more sustainably deliver high-cost, in-demand manpower programs.

Rural students need and deserve strong academic options that open up brilliant career opportunities. The challenge for Montana has always been to provide high-quality, cost-effective programs that meet student and community demands in our huge state. Multi-campus partnerships that leverage the sharing of courses and programs are one solution that now helps ensure that the public university system can fulfill its commitment to provide dynamic opportunities for all students.

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