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Miles Community College’s front lawn on a sunny day

Miles Community College in eastern Montana wants to enroll every local high schooler in a one-credit online course focused on career and personal development.

Miles Community College

Less than one-third of rural high school students enroll in higher education, and one of the primary challenges in attending college is a lack of college-readiness programs and a lack of college recruitment of these students.

Miles Community College (MCC) is a small institution in Eastern Montana with the majority of its enrollment this spring comprised of local high school students participating in the Opportunity Realized Program. MCC launched the program in fall 2022 to help address workforce needs in Montana. The program gives students career-readiness education as a one-credit course, and the program has since expanded to include a recruitment and college-readiness strategy in order to help rural learners see how college can help them and their future goals.

The course, taught by MCC faculty members and delivered online to juniors and seniors around the state, is free for learners and helps prepare them for whatever their post–high school plan is, whether that’s continuing their education or jumping into the workforce.

Ron Slinger smiles for a headshot in front of a gray backdrop wearing a blue shirt and tie under a black jacket.

Ron Slinger, Miles Community College president

Miles Community College

In the latest episode of the Voices of Student Success podcast series, MCC president Ron Slinger spoke with Inside Higher Ed about the program, how it’s benefiting students and the college, and future goals with the course.

An edited version of the conversation follows.

Inside Higher Ed: Can you introduce yourself to our listeners? Who are you and what is your institution.

Slinger: I’m Dr. Ron Slinger and I have the honor of being the president at Miles Community College in Miles City, Montana, which is in Eastern rural Montana.

Inside Higher Ed: About how many students do you have at MCC?

Slinger: So actually, our annualized headcount has grown significantly because of some of the programs we’re doing. This year, our annualized headcount is now over 1,300, which is significant growth. Just in fiscal year ’21, we were at 943. And just this week, we got the numbers, and we now are at 1,340.

Inside Higher Ed: Can you talk a little bit about the Opportunity Realized program? What is this initiative and how does that impact your enrollment so extensively?

Slinger: The Montana Chamber of Commerce did a survey of over 1,000 businesses about three years ago. And those businesses, when they talked about their biggest pain point, it wasn’t technical skills, it was all soft skills. We were in the process of redeveloping our career development course so I handed over those survey results to our team and I said, “This is what the business community is asking for, we really should respond. I would love for us to say that Miles Community College graduates are job ready and have the exact skills that the business community wants.”

Well, they did a great job. They created a one-credit course called Career Development and Interpersonal Skills. It teaches all those skills: emotional intelligence, time management, effective communication, conflict resolution, just being a good person and playing well in the sandbox together.

We launched that class with our own students in fall of ’22 and the response was phenomenal. They gave us feedback like they felt so much more prepared for their first job and the expectations of an employer. And so we quickly realized that, you know, if our students are telling us this, we need to get this in the high schools. So that’s where the idea of the Opportunity Realized program really developed, because that is the vehicle on how we provide this class for free to every school district that’s willing to partner with us.

We piloted it spring of ’23 with two local school districts. They enrolled all of their seniors and we had the exact same feedback. Since then, we have continued to recruit school districts and I’m happy to tell you that today, we now have 31 school districts that we’re partnered with. And we also are partnered with two nonprofits, statewide nonprofits, in providing this course.

I think it’s doing exactly what we want it to do; I think it’s preparing students. First, they get a snapshot of what college is like. They all earn one credit, transcripts from our college, but they also are prepared, so if their direct path after high school graduation isn’t to continue their education—going right into the workforce—they’ve actually been trained in exactly what the business community wants. I would say they’re job ready.

Inside Higher Ed: Yeah, that’s awesome. Can you talk a little about the average high school student in Montana? How many students actually end up going to college?

Slinger: [In] Montana, only 50 percent of high school graduates go on to college. And in rural communities where we serve, that percentage is more like only 25 percent. So now the really exciting thing is that our partners, our rural school districts, they’re partnering with us where they’re just agreeing to enroll all their juniors or all their seniors. So that is a complete game changer. So what we’re doing here is, basically, we’re saying, regardless of your socioeconomic background, regardless of where you live, you’re going to go to college.

You’re going to get at least one college credit and have that experience. And at the same time, it’s a career-exploration class. So you’re literally—the world is opening up for some of these kids—we literally have one of our school district partners this year that has no seniors and two juniors. That’s how small that school district is.

We have other ones that maybe have five or six kids in those classes. We also have a very large school district that has 500 seniors that we’re partnering with now. So it really runs the whole gamut.

But in rural Eastern Montana, we really are committed to changing this. And I believe the platform that we’ve created in this class, I actually believe it’s a model that rural community colleges could take advantage of and I think it could be an economic game changer for the entire country, actually.

Inside Higher Ed: Can you expand on that a little bit? Why is this so beneficial to rural communities in general and where is that economic development growth?

Slinger: So what happens is this: We reap what we sow, right? And we do what we know?

If you are a first-generation college student, no one in your family even knows about college or the experience, and they don’t understand why you’re even exploring that. So you end up just staying in town, you’re not encouraged to go, and you work at the local restaurant or you work some job that way.

This class actually has a whole module in it on career exploration, just opening up the entire idea. Now, they don’t have to leave that community. In today’s economic environment, there are so many careers they could pursue and live where they live. We know now, post-COVID, our online offerings throughout the entire country are just so robust. There are so many programs they could complete.

That also, quite frankly, actually, that’s been a game changer for us also. We have revamped a lot of our models, but we’ve delivered this course distance learning. So a student who in my area (it was in Plentywood, Montana, which is four hours from us), that student could never come to us for a 10 o'clock on Tuesday and Thursday, right? They can now, they can Zoom in, we have HyFlex, we have all sorts of models now.

Where that student is, that changes everything. And so when you think about that, that also creates entrepreneurship, that creates a whole new vitality for those communities. I mean, we’re not looking for students to leave their home communities. We would like to educate them where they are so they can stay. And that’s actually another one of those fears a lot of rural communities have is that, “Well, if Johnny or Susie go to the big university on the other side of the state in a large school, they never come back.” We don’t want that to happen. We’d like them actually to stay and be entrepreneurial and create a company that now is maybe hiring more people.

Inside Higher Ed: How do you scale this? You’ve mentioned it was piloted with a couple of schools and now you’re serving thousands of learners. How do you do that to scale and ensure it’s the same kind of education?

Slinger: So with academic freedom and faculty and things, they’re often allowed to create their own course. We actually are holding firm that this is the syllabus; this is exactly how we’re going to teach it. We’re actually training everyone that we’re hiring—our existing staff and adjuncts who are teaching in this program—the exact same syllabus and the exact same things. That way we can be sure we can say, “If you complete this course, you have been trained in this way in these items.”

So the nice thing, scalability though, is it really is a different world now post-COVID. COVID was horrible for everyone, but what it did do is force us to realize that we need to be more nimble and have distance learning as a key component. So with this, we literally are serving a high school that’s eight hours from us. Literally, that high school can throw a rock and hit Idaho and we are on the exact opposite of Montana, and Montana is a massive state.

But we can seamlessly serve them and provide this phenomenal opportunity. It has been really exciting to see the school districts and it’s really fun. As you talk with the community, the school boards and the superintendents and the principal, they just absolutely get it. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is such a phenomenal elective opportunity.”

In fact, we’re literally only, what, just over a year into this. And we’re seeing just this massive growth. Many of our partners are piloting with us this year. So, they have just one class, but they have the ability to have five classes of it. If they enroll their entire junior class, say—which is where we prefer for the class to be, is the junior year—because in Montana, every student in the state can take two free classes.

So if you play that out, they take this course their junior year, then they realize, “Oh, I have an interest in IT.” Well, then they can take two more free IT classes and start on that pathway.

It just really does spark some really nice things for us, it’s really been exciting. But the scalability is endless, really, just because of technology.

Inside Higher Ed: What has that transition been like, from one credit to more or a full-time student? What are you seeing among students who continue on or if they continue on in their college education?

Slinger: We know that students that participate in dual enrollment do tend to matriculate. So now it’s taking that whole edge on, well, to what end?

One of the next phases on this is developing a microcredential. Because there’s going to be some kids that, quite frankly, they have no interest in going to college, and that’s fine. There are plenty of great careers out there. I think of like some of our ranch kids that their families own these massive ranches—they’re gonna run that ranch, and that’s fine.

But these skills we’re teaching in this class are great, and if we could reach them as a junior, we can then say, “You know what, Johnny, you’re right. You already have your career set. You don’t need to go to college. But you’re gonna run that ranch someday. So guess what? As a senior, for free, you can take two more free classes. Why don’t you take our ag business class because you need to amortize loans on equipment, you need to run payroll …”

The student, because it’s laser-focused and you’re not talking to them about a long two-, three- or four-year grind, they actually would take the class. Not to mention, it’s free. So why not?

And then if you build upon those things. They then have a transcript, so when that time comes if they come back to college, they already have an easier entrance that way.

Now to your point about where we’re seeing that, we’re still in that first full year of it with our partners. So what we’re doing right now is obviously we’re recruiting any senior to see if they would like to become a full-time student.

But the other part about this is, we’re a small rural college. We only have 43 academic programs. And while they still could come to us and finish their first two years and transfer, some of the programs that some of these kids are identifying are at other universities in the state. We’re directing them there.

We’re just saying, “Hey, listen, here’s the two schools that have that program. You want to be a dental hygienist? We can’t do that for you, but these two can.” And that’s a game changer, too, because they just have no idea. And now they’ve had a relationship with someone that can actually guide them.

Honestly, one of the biggest crisis is out there in K-12 education is they can’t keep counselors. And when they do have counselors, half the time they’re more like social workers trying to find kids food and housing and all these other things. They’re not doing as much career development work. So this course really does marry well with that.

But ideally, Ashley, you know, and as we continue to build this out. Our goal is to maybe create a micro-credential that’s maybe three or four classes long. So that way when a kid leaves high school, when they graduate high school, they also have completed a badge or a job-ready certificate from our college. So at least they have some sort of credential as they enter the workforce, if they’re not going to go on to college. And if they are going on to college, all of our classes are fully transferable within the Montana University system, because in Montana we have the Common Core Numbering System.

So they really benefit either way. Of course, the best option would be to attend Miles Community College. I think we all know that, right?

Inside Higher Ed: You’ve mentioned a couple of times also that this is a free course. What are those resources that the college is investing in to keep the program running and how much is the state helping in that?

Slinger: So I will tell you that this would not be possible without the vision of the state legislature because what they did this last session legislative session. They tweaked our funding formula for community colleges and they put an emphasis on career tech education, so they emphasized education, which raised the funding for that line of students.

That has allowed us to have resources to be able to offer this course for free. And so I really want to say that and give them a lot of credit.

Now, I will also tell you the exciting thing is we actually had a private donor donate $100,000 to support this program because they believe so much in what we’re doing. And we’ve also received a grant recently, a $34,500 from a group supporting an individual county because they want every kid in their county to take this class.

It’s just an exciting time to people. It’s resonating with people. They understand what we’re trying to do. They see that—void of that—it’s not out there. People don’t have these things naturally. It’s rewarding to have everyone come together. I’ve yet to have someone tell me, once I’ve been able to sit down with them and tell them what we’re doing, to not get excited about what we’re trying to do.

Inside Higher Ed: Is there any barrier to this program scaling growing? Like what would be the limit?

Slinger: I, quite frankly, I think it’s something that should be scaled to where it’s just part of high school, part of what they take. Every student in the state takes it.

I will tell you the naysayers are, quite frankly, some of my colleagues at other larger schools, universities, they can’t see the value of, “Oh, it’s just one credit. Oh, you’re just giving it away for free, right?”

Because they’re more worried about FTE [full time enrollment]. And I understand—their funding model goes down that way.

Since implementing this and focusing on this, we have grown 45 percent in our annualized headcount of Montana residents: 45 percent. When you think about that, it’s about increasing the recruiting funnel. So instead of having a little kiddie pool that you fill up as your recruiting funnel, ours is an Olympic-sized swimming pool now. Because, literally, we have schools who are literally enrolling entire classes. And I don’t mean an individual class, I mean every student.

That means that every student that graduates from that school will be an MCC student, with an MCC student ID, and we’ll be able to recruit every single one of them. At that point, it’s all about conversion rate.

So let’s say, here’s our local high school who’s joined the program, which we’re very excited about. The local high school has 116 seniors and 115 juniors.

Normally, before this program, we would see about 60 of them in dual enrollment. Through this program, we will see all of them. So if you just simply do some quick math, if we normally matriculated six of those 60, that's 10 percent conversion rate. Now we’re going to have 131, if we can maintain a 10 percent conversion rate, that’s 13 full-time students. And by the way, all the other students also benefited.

I mean, I see no end in it. And I have some peers that just get it. In fact, I’m speaking to a couple of them. I just spoke to one school a few months ago. In April, I’m set to speak to another school about it because they want to see the model and things.

I know the model works. For us, we are fully committed. I see this as our future four- to five-year growth for our college.

Inside Higher Ed: What do you say when you’re talking to these peer institutions about why this matters, or what kind of encouragement do you give to them when they’re looking into piloting something similar?

Slinger: I come back to the core mission. We’re a community college. Access has always been the mission of the community colleges. But I also believe in providing equitable access. The wonderful thing about this is that, again—regardless of your socioeconomic background, regardless of who your parents are, regardless of where you live—you can take this class, and you have this opportunity.

That’s a complete game changer. I mean, that alone, every school in the nation should feel good about. But the other part is, we are responding directly to what the business community has asked for, which is also another huge thing. And for us in Montana, we also are responding to the call of the legislature and the governor’s office of what they want us to focus on.

I realize that I’m blinded by my own clarity of vision on this, but for me, it’s hard to not see a positive outcome for it. But I will say if that funding formula had not been changed this way, it would be difficult for me to expand the way we’re expanding. We still would do it, but we’d have to be pretty calculated about it, so it’s terribly important to fund initiatives when you want this kind of change.

This fall, I think we had six sections of the class. This spring, we have like 15 because of the growth and because some of the commitments some of the school districts are making to expand. I think this fall we may have somewhere between 25 to 30 sections of this class. And then have to do that again in the spring. That’s the type of, just, growth. And it’s an exciting problem to have, right?

As I’ve always said, we’re the Miles Community College pioneers. It’s good to be a pioneer right now.

Listen to previous episodes of Voices of Student Success here.

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