Thiel: Expanding Access to Higher Education for Montana's Rural Students

Virtual learning and partnerships can provide educational and career pathways to more rural students — and address workforce demands

University of Montana Missoula (Getty Images)

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Rural communities, where one in five Americans now lives, are recording significantly lower rates of graduation in higher education, compared to urban Americans. Only 19.5% of rural adults have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 29% of urban adults. This reflects a history of focusing education and workforce development policies toward the nation’s urban areas — and the impact of these policies is obvious in U.S. workforce development. Rural adults have accounted for less than 3% of national job growth since 2001.

With rural industries like mining, millwork and farming in steep decline, postsecondary degrees are increasingly important for social mobility. This means the nation can no longer afford to overlook the challenges faced by rural states and their colleges and universities. Communities are not receiving the skilled professionals they need for jobs because students are not getting the education they need. Creating sustainable workforces and healthy communities across the nation depends on addressing the problems of rural access to higher education.

The question of how to do this has been a driving focus of my work. As director of academic policy and research for the Montana University System, I am acutely aware of the nation’s need to better support rural institutions, students and communities. Vast in size but small in population, Montana has built a proud academic system of 16 campuses, including six four-year and 10 two-year institutions, serving approximately 40,000 students over 147,000 square miles. Yet the need for more sustainable, 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 draws on a relatively sparse population and a limited tax base. Individually, the state's public colleges are not able to offer the full array of academic offerings students need — and want — to graduate. Even if there is significant local need, it is not viable to develop expensive academic programs for, say, cohorts of only five students. As a result, Montana's colleges and universities struggle to offer local communities the diverse credentials and programs required for 21st century workforce development.

Furthermore, rural students, one of the university system's largest and most vulnerable populations, often face complex challenges in pursuing postsecondary degrees and credentials because of their geographic remoteness. For us to succeed as an academic system and as a state, it is critically important to expand the reach and effectiveness of the programs students depend upon to thrive in careers and in life.

One of the most efficient and empowering solutions to these challenges has been to activate powerful, tech-enabled course and program sharing partnerships. Through a technological partnership with Quottly, and targeted investments in providing remote delivery and workforce training, our colleges and universities are providing greater and more sustainable access to key academic programs for rural Montana students.

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

Expanding this collaborative model will enable Montana to provide high-quality educational and career pathways 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 biggest challenges, we are able to meet students' needs while addressing community and state workforce demands.

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

Today, our course and program sharing partnerships are allowing us to be much more strategic in deploying campus resources. Working together, our colleges are offering courses in paramedicine, licensed practical nursing, surgical technology, respiratory care and introduction to health professions, and we plan to expand these collaborations to include instruction in phlebotomy, dental hygiene and ultrasound technology, among others, to more sustainably offer in-demand, high-cost workforce programming.

Rural students need, and deserve, robust academic options that open up bright career opportunities. The challenge for Montana has always been to provide high-quality, cost-effective programs that meet student and community demands across our huge state. Multi-campus partnerships that leverage course and program sharing are one solution that is now helping to ensure the public university system can fulfill its commitment to providing vibrant opportunities for all students.

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