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Expanding Access to Higher Education for Rural Montana Students

Rural areas, where one in five Americans now live, have significantly lower rates of higher education graduation than urban Americans. Only 19.5% of her rural adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to her 29% of urban adults. This reflects a history of centralizing education and workforce development policies in US urban areas, and the impact of these policies is evident in US workforce development. Rural adults have accounted for less than 3% of her national employment growth since 2001.

Post-secondary degrees are becoming increasingly important for social mobility as rural industries such as mining, woodworking and agriculture are rapidly declining. This means the country cannot afford to overlook the challenges facing local states and their universities. Communities are not accepting the skilled professionals they need for work because their students are not getting the education they need. Creating a sustainable workforce and healthy communities nationwide depends on addressing the issue of access to rural higher education.

The question of how to do this drives my work. As Director of Academic Policy and Research for the University of Montana System, I am keenly aware of the need to better support local institutions, students, and communities. We have built a proud academic system of 16 campuses, including 6 four-year colleges and 10 two-year colleges, serving approximately 40,000 students across miles. But as pressure on admissions, resources, and state funding mounts, the need for more sustainable and cost-effective ways to support local communities, institutions, and students increases.


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Like most rural states, Montana has a relatively small population and a limited tax base. Individually, the state’s public universities cannot provide all the academics that students need and want in order to graduate. Even if there is a great need locally, it is impractical to develop a costly academic his program for, say, her cohort of only five students. As a result, Montana’s colleges and universities struggle to provide their communities with the diverse credentials and programs they need to develop their 21st-century workforce.

In addition, one of the largest and most vulnerable populations in the university system, rural students often face complex challenges in obtaining post-secondary degrees and qualifications due to their geographical distance. I have. For us to succeed as an academic system and as a state, it is critical that we expand the reach and effectiveness of the programs that our students rely on to succeed in their careers and lives.

One of the most efficient and empowering solutions to these challenges is to revitalize partnerships that share strong, technology-enabled courses and programs. Through a technology partnership with Quottly and targeted investments in remote delivery and employee training offerings, our colleges are helping rural Montana students get bigger, more sustainable access to key academic programs. provides access.

For example, students may have to drive 5 hours each way to attend the program in person if the program is not offered at their local campus. But by sharing coursework, campuses can broaden their reach by offering some classes online and others directly from the student’s local campus or in a hybrid format. As a result, it reduces costs for universities looking to provide the coursework that communities need, reduces the risk of developing new courses with little or no enrollment, and connects directly with locals. It enables collaboration that provides a flexible learning experience for the students who benefit. campus.

By expanding this collaborative model, Montana will be able to maximize the power of its 16 campuses to provide quality education and career paths to more rural students. And by applying these course-sharing partnerships to some of our biggest challenges, we can meet the needs of our students while meeting the demands of our community and state workforces.

Many of these program challenges are focused on one of Montana’s biggest job drivers, healthcare, which is larger and ready to grow than the service, retail, and travel industries. These specialties provide diagnostic, technical, therapeutic, and support services related to healthcare and are highly paid. But in working with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry to open up new employment opportunities, the university system is training the state’s need for ultrasound technicians, nutritionists, physical therapy assistants, radiologists, and other related medical professionals. I noticed you didn’t.

Today, partnerships that share courses and programs allow us to be more strategic in deploying campus resources. Together, our colleges offer courses in emergency medicine, licensed practical nursing, surgical skills, respiratory care, and referral to medical professionals. We plan to expand these collaborations to include instruction in blood draws, dental hygiene, ultrasound techniques, and more. Sustainably deliver high demand and costly workforce programming.

Rural students need and deserve strong academic choices that open up brilliant career opportunities. Montana’s challenge has been to provide high-quality, cost-effective programs that meet the needs of students and communities throughout its vast state. Multicampus partnerships, leveraging course and program sharing, are one solution to ensuring that the public university system lives up to its commitment to providing vibrant opportunities for all students.