As another school year approaches at Flathead Valley Community College, administrators are moving forward with discussions with state universities about possible partnerships that could greatly expand four-year degree opportunities at the Kalispell campus.
FVCC recently received the results of a broad community-wide survey that showed Flathead County has a demand for more graduates with four-year bachelor’s degrees, particularly in five fields of study.
According to survey responses from more than 300 businesses and community members, the local workforce would benefit from more graduates with four-year degrees in business, computer science/information systems, health professions, education and accounting.
FVCC sent out questionnaires earlier this year as part of its inquiry into whether the Kalispell campus should offer more bachelor’s degree programs with the help of state universities.
“One of the pleasant surprises was how well aligned the businesses’ feedback was,” said Brad Eldredge, executive director of institutional research at FVCC. “(The survey results) indicate what the valley needs.”
Eldredge said FVCC is in discussions with the University of Montana and Montana State University about the possibility of partnering together and offering more programs and classes for higher degrees. This would constitute the creation of a new university center in the Flathead, which is the largest county in Montana without a public or private four-year college or university.
If accomplished, this would be a unique arrangement for the state. Instead of developing into its own four-year university, FVCC would establish facilities and staff that would allow UM or MSU to provide a wide range of educational choices through the Kalispell campus.
This hybrid model is not currently used anywhere else in Montana, but schools across the nation like North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene and Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton, NC, have adopted it with success.
Eldredge said the latest survey results provide hard data showing support in the local community for expanded opportunities at FVCC, which has experienced considerable growth in the past decade.
In Flathead County, 28 percent of the population between the ages of 25 and 64 holds a bachelor’s degree, according to 2012 U.S. Census data. In counties that host a four-year campus, 35 percent of the population has four-year degrees.
The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, an independent research institute, estimated that 34 percent of all jobs in Montana would require a bachelor’s degree by 2018.
FVCC currently offers nearly 30 bachelor and graduate-level degrees on campus, primarily through distance learning. The new university center would expand the number of faculty from the partnering universities and expand the available choices for students.
“Having a university center at FVCC has been a common request from area businesses and community members,” President Jane Karas said when the needs assessment survey was announced in early February.
“We are excited about the opportunity to expand our partnerships with the Montana University System to continue to meet our community needs.”
The school’s survey featured 12 questions that asked employers, current students, alumni and residents to gauge educational and professional training needs in the local workforce.
The questions included, “Thinking of Flathead County as a whole, in which of the following educational areas would it be beneficial to have access to local bachelor’s degrees?” and “How important is access to locally delivered bachelor’s degrees to Flathead County’s economic development?”
The survey also asked what methods of learning would be most appealing, such as online courses or night classes.
“Business” programming received the largest consensus of support among the community, according to survey results. It was ranked the highest priority by local employers, both in terms of individual needs and the perception of the county’s collective needs. Among students who filled out the survey, 21 percent said they were interested in pursuing a four-year business degree in Kalispell.
The need for business degrees far and away outpaced other program areas in terms of projected growth, too, according to the results.
“Accounting” ranked second in terms of businesses’ individual needs and fifth for county needs. The Montana Department of Labor and Industry projected a 22 percent growth in accountants and auditors across the state between 2010 and 2020. FVCC currently offers transfer and workforce accounting programs, and enrollment has historically remained small yet stable.
“Computer and Information Sciences” ranked third for individual needs and second for county needs. FVCC’s transfer program in computer science has struggled to reach high enrollments, according to the school, and only 17 percent of current students expressed interest in studying in the field. But this business segment was projected to see the third highest job growth in the near future.
“Health” professions are increasingly in need in the Flathead Valley, and employers ranked it the county’s third highest demand. It did rank low for individual needs. Healthcare was the most popular choice for students interested in receiving a bachelor’s degree, according to the study.
“Education” degrees ranked fourth highest as a need in the county. It also ranked second among local students interested in pursuing a degree. Education has the second highest project job growth, according to labor market data.
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