New University Strategy Could Boost FVCC

By Beacon Staff

A proposed plan to increase graduate student enrollment and tighten undergraduate student admission requirements at Montana’s universities could boost enrollment at the state’s baccalaureate and two-year higher education institutions, including Flathead Valley Community College.

At his Aug. 24 State of the University address University of Montana President George Dennison said he would like to increase graduate student enrollment at UM and Montana State University, consequently restricting the number of undergraduates admitted to the two schools.

“I think it would (increase FVCC enrollment), but there’s no way to predict by how much because that in large part would depend on MSU and UM: how much stricter the requirements would be and how closely they’d adhere to them,” said Faith Hodges, FVCC director of enrollment planning and research.

“Overall though, I guess I can’t see how it could hurt our numbers.”

Dennison’s reasoning for increasing graduate student enrollment is a “direct correlation” between graduate student enrollments and research and their resulting economic development.

His speech also addressed the state’s “enrollment vitality,” as Montana’s number of high school graduates is expected to continually decrease in future years and all Montana campuses will be left “struggling to increase its market share of a declining number of potential students.”

Dennison said limiting undergraduate enrollment at UM and MSU would increase enrollment at Montana’s baccalaureate and two-year higher education institutions. Students who don’t meet the increased standards would “have incentives to consider campuses other than those in Bozeman and Missoula,” and would be encouraged to attend other schools until they met the new qualifications and could reapply as transfer students.

FVCC President Jane Karas said FVCC is a good option for all students — whether they’re able to meet UM and MSU’s requirements.

“We have students of all levels, from high school valedictorians to students who complete their GED’s here and stay to get their two-year degrees,” she said. “Studies show that students who begin at community colleges are more successful and graduate at higher rates.”

Cathy Conover, MSU’s director of communications and public affairs, said the proposed plan could be the best option for students “not suited for the university level to get settled in and used to the academic rigor.”

“One of the points of consideration (as regents look at the state’s education system) is that often times students come out of high school bound to be a Cat or a Griz or immediately go on to the workforce,” she said. “We want to see how we better encourage students to look at the array of options in the state besides the two flagship universities —this may be it.”

Hodges said the decrease in Montana high school graduates is a concern for FVCC, but enrollment tends to be most affected by local unemployment rates.

“They tend to go with the local economy,” she said. “When unemployment is high we tend to see an increase; when unemployment is low enrollment tends to decrease because people are out there working.”

State funds for Montana’s higher education institutions are determined by full-time equivalent enrollments. FTE is the total number of credits taken at the school divided by 15. Head count enrollments record the number of persons enrolled in the school.

FTE at FVCC decreased by 148.97 students over the past five years. In that same time span, unemployment rates have plummeted from 5.5 percent to 2.3 percent.

Yet, this year FVCC is bucking the recent trend: initial enrollment numbers are higher this year than they were at the same time last year despite unemployment rates in Flathead hovering around 2.3 percent, Hodges said. Official enrollment numbers for this year aren’t available until the college’s Sept. 20 census date when it submits FTE figures to the state.

Hodges said besides the traditional college-aged students, FVCC numbers are complemented with high school juniors and seniors getting a jump on college credits, local residents interested in one specialty class or seniors enrolled in the spring senior institute.

“Our students can be anywhere from 16 to 90; that’s all part of our mission of serving the community,” Hodges said. “Students range from those who want to transfer on to those looking for a career with a two-year associate’s or those simply interested in a one-day workshop as part of continuing ed.”

With small classes, emphasis on teaching rather than research, and financial aid options, Karas said FVCC students know they’re getting an affordable, quality education that’s equipped to meet their specific needs.

“The larger universities often recruit our students because they know they are well prepared,” she said.

Dennison said increasing graduate student enrollments and restricting the number of undergrads is on this academic year’s agenda. The proposal will likely go before the Board of Regents for discussion during its September and November meetings.