Some residents of the Flathead Valley want to get bachelor's degrees but can't leave their jobs or families.
Jane Karas, president and CEO of Flathead Valley Community College, wonders if they might be able to get four-year degrees at her two-year institution in the future.
"There may be some very specialized degrees that, working with the university system, we may be able to offer," Karas said in a recent interview.
Earlier this month, presidents of Montana's community colleges gave an update to members of the Interim Education and Local Government Committee in Helena. At the meeting, college leaders and lawmakers discussed how the schools were being responsive to workforce and business needs.
In her remarks, Karas briefly mentioned that some other states allow community colleges to confer baccalaureate degrees.
"Maybe, at some point, that's something Montana will consider," Karas said.
At a subsequent interview, she said she doesn't want to compete with the four-year schools, but she does want to serve the Flathead community.
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, an increasing number of states are freeing community colleges to grant baccalaureate degrees, although the change isn't always welcomed by legislators.
At the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, though, the Montana University System already has many ways to help students across the state get the degrees they want, including options for four-year programs.
And officials said a change would be costly.
"We feel like we're already doing the equivalent of what two-year community colleges issuing four-year degrees would be," said Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for communications for the Commissioner of Higher Education.
Karas said the idea is still in exploratory stages, and it would require action by the Montana Legislature. Currently, she said, state statute prohibits community colleges from offering four-year degrees.
She isn't interested in duplicating programs offered at the universities or transforming Flathead Valley Community College into a four-year institution.
"I do know that other states have provided the opportunity for their community colleges to offer limited – very limited – specialized four-year degrees, which is all I think we would be interested in exploring with the university system," Karas said.
Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said some schools usher in the change because enrollment at the four-year institutions is full – not the case at the University of Montana, which has been facing a decline since 2009.
However, she said some schools in rural areas want to eliminate the barrier for students who would otherwise have to travel far.
According to 2015 data from the AACC, 23 states currently allow community colleges to award bachelor's degrees, but with the exception of Florida and Washington, fewer than four institutions in each state do so. In 2014, some 65 community colleges out of 1,123 in the country offered baccalaureate programs.
"State higher education policies generally limit to the types of bachelor's degrees community colleges can offer," according to data provided by the AACC.
In other states, Parham said, one concern legislators have raised as they've debated the issue is they don't want to take students away from the four-year universities.
"Certainly, I don't think anyone's intention is to take students away from other institutions, but to provide even more opportunities and more access for students," Parham said.
By design, she said, community colleges are built to respond to local needs, and sometimes, that means keeping people in the regional economy: "I think sometimes that means a bachelor's degree."
She said a four-year degree from a community college is in no way diluted because the programs go through the same accreditation.
Shannon O'Brien, dean of Missoula College, said her institution and Bitterroot College are fully embedded with UM. As such, they differ from the two-year community colleges in Dawson, Miles City and Flathead Valley, which each have their own boards and constituencies, albeit with similar oversight by the Montana Board of Regents.
She said students at Missoula College know that their education will be seamless if they want to get a bachelor's degree from UM. The schools offer "two plus two" programs, which allow students to do a couple years at the college and finish after a couple years at UM.
Peggy Kuhr, integrated vice president for communications at UM, directed questions about letting the community colleges grant bachelor's degrees to the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
There, McRae and John Cech, deputy commissioner for academic and student affairs, said the system already offers an abundance of options for students to acquire four-year degrees without having to travel, including e-learning partnerships.
In Helena, for instance, Helena College UM is partnering with Montana Tech in Butte to provide baccalaureate options for citizens in Helena, Cech said: "So those citizens don't have to drive to Butte."
In the Flathead Valley, residents can get four-year degrees, too, although only in nursing or education, McRae said: "We acknowledge that it is limited, but it's limited because of what is sustainable and viable."
And to date, bachelor's degrees in Montana still come from four-year institutions, a feature he believes students still prefer.
A change would be costly in terms of planning and accreditation, McRae said. For instance, he said local taxpayers might have to foot the bill for more labs or facility upgrades.
Qualifications for faculty also are different, he said.
On the other hand, McRae said, if a community or college believes a need exists, the university system is willing to craft a way to address it. Currently, though, Cech said the state has many options to meet higher education needs with its existing approach.
"I think the structure that we have in Montana is very good," Cech said.