Obama plan to help two-year colleges.


By JENNIFER McKEE - IR State Bureau - 07/15/09


Leaders for some of Montana’s two-year colleges applauded President Barack Obama’s proposal Tuesday to pump $12 billion into community colleges nationally, with one calling it the most significant news in two-year education in several generations.


“It looks to me like this will be quite significant,” said John Cech, dean of Montana State University-Billings’ College of Technology. “I think today will likely be a very historic day for two-year education across the United States. This is probably one of the most significant announcements since the end of World War II.”


John Garic, dean of Montana Tech’s College of Technology in Butte, called Obama’s plan “wonderful.”


“I realize the details are always critically important, but step one is leadership,” he said. “Even to come up with this concept.”


President Obama announced Tuesday a $12 billion, 10-year effort to improve two-year education. He outlined his plans during a speech at a Michigan community college. Congress would have to appropriate the money for the program.


Montana has been focusing heavily on two-year education for the past year, Garic said, and is well-positioned to compete for some of the $9 billion the president outlined Tuesday for challenge grants colleges may compete for. The $9 billion is part of the $12 billion total proposed by Obama.


Mary Sheehy Moe, the former dean of MSU’s College of Technology in Great Falls and now the deputy commissioner for two year education in the Montana university system, said the state still has a long way to go to reach out to the workers who could benefit from two-year education.


Montana is “last in the West” and among the last in the country for the number of adults currently engaged in some kind of higher education, she said. Money is part of the problem.

Two-year education is cheaper than four-year schools, she said, but for many families it is not thrifty enough. Student loans are an option for many students, but students still have to pay that back and that limits options for graduating students.


Many parents looking to increase their earning potential also run into the trouble of child care. Moe said parents can spend as much on child care while they attend class as they do on class, itself.


Moe said there is also a stigma among some that Montana’s two-year colleges are “vo-techs,” although they have evolved much since the days when such schools offered only career training.

“Students can get the same general education (requirements) they’d be getting at four-year schools,” she said, and Montana has been working to make transferring those credits seamless.

All three said post-high school education is intimately tied to a person’s earning power, even if the training is as simple as a certificate, Garic said, not even a two-year degree.

Cech said his school has worked with MSU-Billings, along with local utilities, hospitals and unions to develop degree programs tailor-made for the local job market, like power plant operators or wind turbine technicians.


Still, he said, there is a shortage of some trained professionals and his school currently lacks the money to develop those programs.

Billings hospitals have asked for more trained respiratory therapists, anesthesia and pharmacy technicians. Those are programs Cech said he’d like to develop, potentially with the money Obama outlined.

As layoffs have rippled through the economy, many two-year colleges are seeing record enrollments. A well-trained workforce is vital to stabilizing economies, Garic said.

“We lift up the economy of Montana by lifting up these people with (educational) credentials,” he said.


Yet a significant number of Montanans still lack even a high school education, Cech said. Some 120,000 Montanans who are at least 16 lack a high school diploma or its equivalent and are not enrolled in any kind of program to secure such a basic educational background.


Cech called those numbers “an opportunity for economic development in Montana” and said two-year colleges could do more to reach out to those people and help them get a GED, along with higher job training.


Moe also said that reaching out to the large numbers of Montana adults lacking any kind of post-high school education is a state priority. She said Obama’s announcement might make that easier.

“It is really exciting for Montana to get more people engaged,” she said. “We really need to reach populations we haven’t reached before.”


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