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Cameron Siefke, a culinary student from Great Falls plates a bison burger in the kitchens at Flathead Valley Community College. Senior culinary students run the Nuture Me restaurant, where they are responsible for food preparation and presentation, and serving paying guests.

TOMMY MARTINO. Missoulian

Leaders of three Montana community colleges touted to legislators on Wednesday their collaborations with industry.

At a meeting of the Interim Education and Local Government Committee in Helena, community college presidents discussed their responsiveness to businesses, and at least one lawmaker praised their work.

Sen. Matthew Rosendale, R-Glendive, said he appreciated the advances the colleges have made the past several years in being nimble, as he believes they should be compared to the four-year institutions. 

"The community colleges are supposed to be able to cater to the business needs of the community and offer programs that are going to fill that need," Rosendale said.

Vincent Nix, interim president of Dawson Community College, said the school has established three new career and technology education programs in the past nine months, including one that will be only the fourth of its kind in the nation, corrosion technology.

Corrosion technology will launch in August, having gone from symposium to approval in 10 months, he said.

"That is not the speed of education," Nix said at the meeting, which was available by video stream. "That is close to the speed of industry, and this program is just that, industry-driven."

Montana relies on the colleges to respond to its needs, he said, and he anticipates more program development in the future.

"As Montana's aging infrastructure needs become more apparent, these types of programs are critical for our state and our region," he said.

Jane Karas, president of Flathead Valley Community College, said her school offers many classes on campus that high school students take to begin education in an affordable way.

She, too, said the school is responding to businesses, having brought 20 manufacturers onto campus to share their needs for knowledge, skills and abilities. The people trained at the school then fill the need, she said.

"Many of our students stay in the area and work locally, so it's a win for everybody," Karas said.

She said one challenge the schools face is having to return money if their enrollment falls below its projection. On the plus side, she said, the current funding formula allows colleges to plan effectively and "bridge the high fluctuations" in enrollment, unlike in the past.

However, Karas also said the schools struggle when they receive little increases between bienniums.

Sen. Elsie Arntzen, R-Billings, asked if Karas would do away with the requirement schools return money if enrollment doesn't come through as projected.

Karas said she believed the three community college leaders present would do away with "reversion," and she also said she didn't believe it would result in campuses over-shooting their enrollment estimates.

"We all try to project our enrollment as close to actual numbers as possible," she said.

Stacy Klippenstein, president of Miles Community College, said enrollment in his school has gone up in the past couple of years, a change since 2011. Fall enrollment was up 7 percent from the year before, he said, with many students choosing health programs.

Klippenstein also said the state's "workforce dollars" from 2013 were well worth its investment. The college has a 98.7 percent placement rate for its graduates, and most stay in Montana, he said.

He said every $1 from taxpayers that goes into the college results in a $2.20 return.

"We discovered that our graduates will earn $11,000 more a year than a person without a high school diploma," Klippenstein said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian