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Missoula College talks up new home as enrollment fluctuates

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In 2012, Missoula College needed more trailers. The two-year occupational and technical affiliate of the University of Montana had experienced massive growth—the student population increased from 964 in fall 2003 to 2,803 in 2011—and administrators were doing all they could to accommodate demand. Math, culinary arts and other classes were being offered in doublewides, and Dean Barry Good didn’t want to add more. He was looking for a more permanent means of adding space.

“There was no room,” Good says. “So what happened is, we needed more trailers. So instead of getting those trailers, we went to our carpentry program—construction and carpentry—and we spoke to the faculty there and we said, ‘Instead of buying trailers or all of that, do you think our carpentry students could build trailers or build modulars as part of their projects in that program?’ And that’s what they did.” He looks back at a pair of long, low buildings that look more like suburban tract housing than academic facilities. “And what you’re seeing here, students built this.”

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Despite recent declines in enrollment at Missoula College, Dean Barry Good is helping lead the two-year school as it prepares to move to a new and bigger building on East Broadway.

This August, Good joined Gov. Steve Bullock, Mayor John Engen and a long list of political and educational dignitaries from around the city and state to break ground on a much bigger construction project, one that will require far more manpower and resources than the carpentry department could possibly handle: a brand new, four-story, 155,500-square-foot, $32 million home for Missoula College on East Broadway, expected to be completed by fall 2016. But construction begins amid a three-year period of declining enrollment at the college.

Since peaking in 2011, enrollment is down by nearly 600 students. This fall, 2,245 people signed up for classes, a 9 percent decrease from just a year ago and a nearly 20 percent drop from 2011. But while a shrinking student population at UM’s main campus has been the source of apparent concern for administrators there, those involved with Missoula College’s expansion say they aren’t worried about the trend.

John Cech, the Montana University System’s deputy commissioner for two-year and community college education, says there’s “an inverted relationship” between two-year-college enrollment and economic prosperity. When the economy is bad, unemployed workers flock to technical schools to get training and credentials that will improve their chances of finding new jobs. When the economy improves and employment rates increase, potential students enter the job market instead of the classroom.

“Now that we’re in a period where the economy has not only stabilized in Montana but has actually started growing, the enrollments at the two-year colleges have corrected themselves a little bit,” Cech says.

While acknowledging the correlation between unemployment and enrollment, and recognizing that some correction has occurred, Good says Missoula College is still on a path toward growth. As evidence, he points to 2008, when the state unemployment rate was 4.5 percent and enrollment at the college was 1,641. Good compares those numbers to the latest data, which indicates the college has approximately 600 additional students despite a slightly higher unemployment rate of 4.7 percent. Good sees the past three years as a temporary slump, and he believes the new building on East Broadway will be the key to getting out of it.

“What this is really going to allow, this new facility—it’s going to allow us really to start partnering with business and industry, more and more and more,” Good says. “And the location of it is terrific, especially for the downtown area in Missoula. Everything. This facility is really going to give us what we needed—and need.”

Cech agrees. In 2002, he was made dean of what was then the College of Technology at Montana State University Billings and is now City College at MSU Billings. Cech says the completion of a 50,000-square-foot health sciences building on the campus in 2008 “paved the way for significant growth,” helping to more than double enrollment between 2002 and 2010. He believes the new Missoula College building will do the same.

“That new building is going to do a couple of things,” Cech says. “It’s going to provide the space that’s necessary to meet the college where it is today, but it’s also going to provide opportunities and space for growth.”

According to Bullock, who helped secure funding for the building through his Jobs and Opportunity by Building Schools initiative, those opportunities for growth will come primarily from the business community.

“We launched, a little over a year and a half ago, this Main Street Montana project to really start putting together a business plan for the state of Montana,” Bullock says. “And as those business leaders travelled around getting input, one of the main things that came out of it is that one of the things we really need to be working on is workforce development and the linkages between higher education and the business communities.”

Those links can be fostered through training, credentials and degrees targeted directly at the needs of businesses, he says—and the new Missoula College will be able to better provide students with that kind of directed, in-demand instruction. As that happens, economic growth and enrollment should both improve, thereby combatting their historically inverted relationship. But investment in the new East Broadway facility isn’t only about aiding businesses and colleges, say Bullock and Good. It’s also about helping students excel

“Really, we’re creating upward mobility for people,” Good says. “We really are. And that’s where we’re headed.”

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