Montana University System Explores Accelerated Degrees

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Spurred in part by ongoing staffing shortages in Montana’s healthcare sector, Montana’s university system is exploring ways to condense the academic schedule for some college degrees and introduce graduates into the workforce more quickly. state work.

A pilot program, currently in development with a target launch date of June 2023, would reduce the time it takes to earn a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree to six or seven semesters over two calendar years. In the case of an associate degree, the goal is to condense the existing two-year schedule to three semesters. As MUS spokeswoman Angela King told the Montana Board of Regents when announcing the pilot project earlier this fall, these so-called sprint degrees would effectively make higher education a full-time endeavor for the participants.

“It will take a lot of time and commitment from a student, and it will hopefully make the student feel like they’re going to work every day, it’s their job,” King said.

Higher Education Deputy Commissioner Brock Tessman told the Montana Free Press in October that Montana State University-Billings and its affiliate City College will serve as initial testing sites for the sprint diploma pilot, with a first-year cohort of 30 to 50 students. The specific degrees that will be offered on an accelerated track have yet to be identified, but Tessman said early conversations with industry partners, including the Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare, have prompted the university system to focus the program on workforce shortages within the local health care community. .

“X-ray techs, surgical techs, medical techs — there are a lot of areas where they have a need,” Tessman said.

Josh Billstein, director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Development at Billings Clinic, said staffing issues have become particularly pronounced in recent years. The demand for services continues to increase as Montana’s population ages. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted some medical professionals to re-evaluate their careers, and hospitals across the country have struggled to retain staff or have been forced to woo new hires with job bonuses. signature. Billstein said certain specialty positions such as neurodiagnostic technologists have become “an acute need” at the Billings Clinic and in the area.

“We looked at some of our most frequently open positions and those that were hard to fill and really used that to try to pin down some of the conversation around where the highest impact might be from healthcare perspective,” Billstein said of the clinic’s initial. role in the conversation about sprint degrees.

The types of degrees MUS is considering for the pilot involve not only classroom courses, but also hands-on experience in a clinical setting. They are also overseen by separate accrediting bodies to ensure that student achievement and academic quality are maintained. According to Sep Eskandari, MSU-Billings Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, this means that any new degree paths developed under the pilot will need to obtain support from the appropriate accrediting body – the one of the many challenges, he said, that the university is preparing for. meet head-on.

“Hopefully by next month we can really have some really clear guidelines from the accrediting bodies on one or two of these programs,” Eskandari said.

“We don’t want to try 10 programs and let eight fail. We want to take one or two, be very intentional, do it well. And then once we have that formula, we can adapt as new needs come to us from our industry partners.

Sep Eskandari, Provost of MSU-Billings and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

Eskandari predicts that the pilot’s accelerated schedule will also require MSU-Billings to begin offering some basic courses during the summer and offer special guidance to pilot attendees. He added that the campus intends to limit the pilot to an associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree to begin with, in hopes that the limited focus will produce better results than MSU-Billings and other campuses can. then apply to other areas of high labor demand. .

“We don’t want to try 10 programs and let eight fail. We want to take one or two, be very intentional, do it well,” Eskandari said. “And then, once we have that formula, we can adapt as new needs come to us from our industry partners.”

The MUS pilot joins a growing list of initiatives around the state designed to meet pressing economic needs. Over the past year, the Accelerate Montana Partnership, based at the University of Montana, has developed a series of rapid training programs for jobs in manufacturing, construction and healthcare. Accelerate Montana director Paul Gladen said one such program, dubbed Job Site Ready, consists of 30 hours of online classes and 15 hours of on-site experience, all culminating in a first-class job. rung. The partnership estimates that more than 450 Montana residents will complete its rapid training programs by the end of 2022. Gladen believes that many of these participants are people who might not have otherwise considered higher education.

“There’s a lot of people looking at college programs and they’re like, ‘You know what, I’m not sure I want to do a two-year degree or a four-year degree,'” Gladen said. ‘Alright, let’s focus on training that can get you a job. And maybe then you see the benefits of training and education and want to do more.

Eskandari and Tessman expect experimental sprint degrees to appeal to multiple groups of students, from high schoolers who want to forgo the traditional college experience in favor of a fast track to a high-paying job to mid-career professionals. looking for a new direction within their chosen industry. And overall, Eskandari said, a fast track should also reduce the long-term cost of education for students. According to Billstein, the Billings Clinic is even discussing ways to provide financial aid to sprint graduate students, as the rigors of the pilot likely preclude outside employment to help pay for their education.

“We’re certainly looking at new ways to support people so they don’t have to make some of these tough choices about loans and things like that,” Billstein said.

If successful, Tessman said, the sprint degree pilot would serve a purpose far beyond the state’s immediate health care needs. He envisions accelerated degrees as a “living portfolio” that can help campuses respond more broadly to the ever-changing demands of Montana’s economy.

“There might be a three-year sprint in the paramedic technical areas,” Tessman said. “And then maybe we’re making enough progress where those are fading a bit and what we really want is a sprint in cybersecurity in order to meet the unmet demand there- down.”


Disclosure: Brock Tessman, Deputy Commissioner for Academic Affairs, Research and Student Affairs in the Office of the Commissioner for Higher Education, is married to MTFP Deputy Director Kristin Tessman. MTFP commercial staff are not involved in editorial coverage.

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