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Montana Becomes Top State in Increasing 2-year Degrees

HELENA Mont.—President Barack Obama set a goal early in his first term for the U.S. to turn out more college graduates than any other nation, but there hasn’t been much progress as most states have stumbled in their attempts to improve.

Montana, however, stands apart.

By investing in junior colleges, the Treasure State boasts a 6 percent rise in adult graduation rates over a span where the rest of the country showed an increase of less than 1 percent, according to census data.

Montana, and the nation, still has a long way to go to accomplish the president’s objective by his 2020 deadline. It would take roughly a 50 percent increase in graduation rates to hit Obama’s target. Meanwhile, the percentage of degree-holders has decreased in 15 states since the president’s 2009 announcement, and other states have seen only marginal bumps.

Education experts say the U.S. won’t reach Obama’s mark without focusing on nontraditional students, which Montana has done through focusing on community colleges.

“We have done a lot to pull two-year schools into the limelight,” said Tyler Trevor, an official with the Montana University System.

Tuition rates at the state’s community colleges have been frozen since 2007 at about $3,000 annually, roughly half the amount of Montana’s four-year universities.

The state also has tried to make college more appealing to adult students, said Dewayne Matthews, vice president for strategy and policy at the Lumina Foundation, a privately funded group that focuses on higher education.

The state’s approach has worked for students such as Lexi Country, a recent community college graduate who said that in the past she didn’t think higher education was for her.

Country said she grew up poor with no college-educated role models, and she considered other personal factors as obstacles. She permanently injured her back in the Army. She has four children. And she said that, as a minority student, she was leery of how she would be received on campus.

“We know that there are programs for Native Americans, but if we feel like we don’t belong, we won’t stay,” she said.

But Country did stay, largely because she took advantage of family counseling, group tutoring and extracurricular programs provided by Helena College.

Study groups and other programs outside the classroom fostered a supportive camaraderie with other Native American and veteran students. Free family counseling lessened the stress of her dual roles as mom and student, she said.

Such programs have been designed with adult students like Country in mind, said Elizabeth Stearns Sims, dean of student services at Helena College.

“We tend to have more part-time students and more adult learners,” Stearns Sims said. “That’s where we specialize.”

Helena College offers a federally funded program that provides counseling and one-on-one tutoring. Those in the program have an 87 percent retention rate, compared to 57 percent for nonparticipants, Stearns Sims said. Helena College is also in its first stages of a program designed to catch academic deficiencies immediately and so advisers can help students more quickly.

Country received an associate’s degree in business and plans to start work this month on a bachelor’s degree at Montana Tech.

She has set a path she believes her children can follow.

“I want them to see that anything is possible for them,” Country said.

Thanks in part to such stories Montana’s graduation rate climbed between 2008 and 2010 to 40 percent of state residents. Overall, the average U.S. completion rate is 38 percent.

Obama’s goal calls for a 60 percent graduation rate, and two-year schools with programs similar to those at Helena College will be essential to getting there, Matthews said. And the deadline is significant, according to a Georgetown University study, 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require some form of post-secondary training by 2020.

“You look at the shift that’s taking place,” Matthews said. “States that don’t have community colleges have a significant disadvantage.”

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