The state's public two-year colleges are in a boom phase, speakers at the Montana Board of Regents meeting said last week in Billings.
Rolf Groseth, new chancellor at Montana State University Billings, said MSUB's College of Technology expanded from 658 students to 973 between 2009 and 2010 - a 48 percent growth in the number of full-time equivalent students.
In fact, all five university system COTs showed at least double-digit growth in enrollment while four-year schools ranged from slight declines to a mere 3 percent to 4 percent.
President Waded Cruzado of Montana State University noted the impressive growth at COTs - compared to relatively flat expansion in the numbers at four-year colleges.
"But it's also about retaining these students ... helping them move forward," she said.
She added that the COTs tend to attract so-called "non-traditional" students, not kids coming straight out of high school. Some may have attended college and quit to enter the workforce or begin families, she said, and colleges need to ask, "What do we need to do for you to come back?"
Next Wednesday, MSUB and its COT host listening sessions on the mission of two-year schools including "rebranding and renaming them," said John Czech, assistant commissioner for two-year education and former dean of the Billings COT.
Officials will seek ideas on how to make programs more affordable and accessible, work out dual-enrollment programs and other initiatives.
Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns said Montana has a relatively high graduation rate out of the high schools but fewer than 10 percent go directly into the state's universities and COTs.
"We have a much greater completion rate in our high schools and we haven't converted that" into university enrollments, said MSUB's Dr. Groseth.
He said the addition of a Health Sciences Building at the Billings COT and receiving additional land "are like the planting of trees, a belief in the future."
But he said graduates of nursing and radiology programs at the COT are finding limited placement spots in Montana.
Dr. Groseth said MSU Billings must be innovative and combine such fields as public administration, health administration and business to provide a more holistic education valuable in the real world.
New Montana Tech Chancellor Donald M. Blackketter said the Butte institution is working with both MSU and the University of Montana to offer interdisciplinary studies in such areas as metallurgy, geophysics and mining engineering.
He said, "We're seeing an increase in graduate students in science, technology, energy and math" and put in a pitch for adding a doctoral program at Tech.
Lack of a doctoral program means that "we're missing the opportunity to apply for certain research funding" that would benefit tech.
Dr. Blackketter said, "We're having trouble attracting natural-resource scientists. We can't compete with industry" and a doctoral track might lure some scientists out of the field.
The regents did grant a 1 percent pay increase for most faculty members, followed by a 2 percent raise the next fiscal year to help cushion such a brain drain.
Board Vice Chairman Todd Buchanan of Billings said: "I'm concerned it may not be enough to deal with some of our vacancy issues" at system campuses as veteran teachers retire.
Dr. Cruzado specified the MSU Great Falls COT for "doing an extraordinary job of attracting students, retaining them and graduating them" at much lower costs than any other institutions in the system.
"Most important is engagement," she said, "aiming at connecting with students ... so they find a sense of community."
The Regents welcomed new student Regent Joe Thiel of MSU, an engineering student who served in Africa for Engineers Without Borders and learned of the resignation of Lynn Hamilton of Havre, who has two years remaining on her term.
Board members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Montana Senate for staggering seven-year terms.
The board also is contracting with a consulting firm to find a replacement for Commissioner Stearns, who is resigning.