Mary Sheehy Moe Commentary: “Missoula College: A Cinderella Story

Well, a new legislature has convened, and for the fourth straight session, Missoula’s two-year college will be pleading with legislators for a new facility. For the last decade, the facility that began as a vo-tech and was recently re-christened Missoula College of the University of Montana has been bursting at the seams. Constructed in the late ‘60s for a student body of 700, Missoula College now enrolls roughly 2500 students. The College’s programs have grown from the strictly occupational to the full array of community college offerings – workforce programs, transfer degrees, developmental coursework, dual enrollment classeses for high school students, and community outreach.

It hasn’t been easy. Like Montana’s other university system two-year colleges, Missoula College has fought the vo-tech stereotype for years – the local perception that it’s a last resort for people who – well, just aren’t “college material.” Although its tuition is much lower than the university’s, its class sizes generally much smaller, and its student-centeredness more historic, for many years Missoula College was Missoula’s best-kept higher education secret.

That’s pretty much in the past now. But unlike most of the other two-year colleges, Missoula College has had no significant facilities improvements since it was built. In 2005 and 2007, the investments the legislature made in facilities in Great Falls, Billings, and Helena gave those colleges a much-needed makeover. Now high school kids are wowed when they visit those beautiful campuses for career days or dual enrollment courses. Now businesses cite their state-of-the-art facilities as a major factor in why they choose to locate in those communities.

Not Missoula College. Like Cinderella, for over 8 years she’s had to watch her step-sisters go to the ball and hope that someday her prince will come. Enrollments at Missoula College have shown the highest and steadiest increases of the former vo-techs. Sought-after programs have waiting lists of students clamoring to get in. To provide more space, construction students have built “temporary” trailers for classrooms and faculty offices … certainly not the kind of thing that wows students or industry.

But this isn’t about cosmetics. It’s about the quality of learning – and about the quality of the degree. Twenty years ago, I taught in Helena’s two-year college in trailers they called temporary — though they’d been there for years. In the winter, my students were so cold they wore their coats in class – and so did I. Forget state-of-the-art technology. Our focus on technology was putting the right amount of snow on the thermostat to kick the heat up. That’s the kind of experience Missoula College is facing now – or soon will be.

Then there’s the splintering of the campus, with the inconvenience to faculty and students traveling all over town requires. As just one example, healthcare jobs in Montana pay extremely well for graduates with two-year degrees. All healthcare programs require science courses with labs. Not possible at Missoula College. Students and faculty traipse around town, depending on the College’s gracious partners throughout the community to provide the lab experiences they need. But it may not be enough. All healthcare programs also require professional accreditation. This hop-a-freight approach to programming threatens accreditation, and without that, students’ degrees have little value.

Space matters. This college matters. Graduates from two-year colleges find good jobs with good wages right in their communities. Other graduates lateral over to four-year colleges and because of what they’ve saved on two-year college tuition, they complete a bachelor’s degree much more affordably. Local businesses prosper by having their two-year-college provide training customized to tap their potential. Although Missoula College is attempting to do all that for the community it serves, in its present facility, the strain is taking its toll.

The price tag for a new facility for Missoula College is hefty – $47 million. Part of the reason it’s that high is that the college will be the first facility on UM’s south campus, so that price tag includes laying the infrastructure for future growth. Yeah, that’s a lot of dollars – but making the investment in Missoula College makes a lot of sense. In a legislative session where the mantra is jobs-jobs-jobs, this kind of investment will ensure jobs in Missoula and Ravalli counties, perhaps the most populous area of the state, for decades to come.
It’s time for Missoula to stop spatting about golf and get serious about the sub-par facilities of the college whose historic and continuing reason for being is serving that community and region. It’s crucially important that you people in Missoula and Ravalli counties tell your legislators to support HB 14, the bonding bill for Missoula College. And because 700 Missoula College students come from all across the state, no matter where you live in Montana, you should be telling your legislators the same thing. It’s time to get this Cinderella out of the ashes and into the 21st century.

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