Trailer teaching 

Record enrollment, limited funds challenge COT

University of Montana College of Technology (COT) professor Joe Crepeau affectionately calls the doublewide trailer he shares with another tenured professor and an army of adjuncts "the math shack." Crepeau's trailer, which acts as the nerve center for the COT math department, is one of several erected across the school's South Avenue campus during the last few years to make room for a record influx of students.

"We're needing triplewides," Crepeau quips.

COT enrollment jumped 28 percent between fall 2008 and fall 2009. Last semester's 2,105 students marked the school's largest headcount ever. With displaced workers from Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., Macy's and other businesses hit hard by the recession also expected to land on COT's doorstep, enrollment will likely continue to rise.

But what sounds like a good thing for COT is causing some major logistical problems as the school tries to balance demand with limited resources. Administrators say finding adequate building space and sufficient staffing while tax dollars dry up is proving difficult, and faculty worry about the fallout.

For years, UM has aimed to construct a new COT facility. But during the last legislative session, school officials were unsuccessful in persuading lawmakers to cough up the $30 million needed to construct a new building.

It remains to be seen if the 2011 Legislature will find money to fund new digs for COT—statewide budget issues would appear to make it a long-shot—but space isn't the only challenge. Professors say staffing has become increasingly difficult. As it stands, COT faculty members typically teach five full classes per semester, says Eddie Moore, an organizational psychology professor. He worries that if demand continues to rise without a corresponding increase in resources, educational quality will suffer.

"The question is, how long can we provide a level of service that we all want to provide?" Moore says. "How long can everyone cope with it and still perform and function at the level we want and need to?"

click to enlarge The University of Montana College of Technology erected several doublewide trailers across campus to help meet record enrollment. “We’re needing triplewides,” quips professor Joe Crepeau. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The University of Montana College of Technology erected several doublewide trailers across campus to help meet record enrollment. “We’re needing triplewides,” quips professor Joe Crepeau.

Faculty and administrators at community colleges across Montana are asking themselves the same question, says Mary Moe, the state's deputy commissioner for two-year education. As jobs dry up, colleges in Billings, Great Falls and the Flathead are seeing enrollment spike. Moe specifically points to Flathead Valley Community College, which is weathering a 31.7-percent jump in enrollment this year over last.

"They are looking for hope," says Moe of the many newly unemployed returning to school.

COT, a two-year college that operates as a part of UM but with less stringent entry requirements and smaller tuition expenses, offers new students a more attainable education opportunity. Moe says that in addition to hope, the colleges are expressly positioned to help students escape occupational roadblocks and respond to local needs.

"This is what two-year colleges do," she says. "And this is what neighbors do."

But faced with a shrinking bottom line, Moe says that directive is becoming increasingly difficult to meet.

"It's a real dilemma, I think, for the state and for the COT, figuring out how to deal with this explosion in demand when there's almost a converse amount of resources," Moe says.

In an effort to make due with what they have, state administrators are already brainstorming cost-saving techniques. One plan currently in the early stages includes building a virtual community college. Similar to online offerings through the university system, a virtual college would beam professors into student homes via the Internet, thereby curbing the need for physical space. But, Moe says it will take several months before the state is ready to roll out the virtual college. "We don't have the technical infrastructure to make that work right now."

In the meantime, the school is working with what it has. Barry Good, COT's dean, says the school remains well equipped to provide developmental education, the start of a health care career or groundwork for obtaining a bachelor's degree down the road.

As for the expected influx of displaced workers, many will receive federal aid to help cover educational expenses. That, Good says, will help offset some of COT's costs. Regardless of fiscal challenges, the dean says he and his staff are committed to fulfilling their role in the Missoula community.

"If there's any question that the University of Montana, including the College of Technology, is going to be responsive to the needs of dislocated workers, the answer is absolutely, 'Yes,'" he says. "We do have challenges...In spite of the challenges and everything else, we're making this work."

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