Why It’s Unfair and Not Useful to Rank Montana Colleges [Opinion]
You could say that Billings is having a rough week. First, Billings is called out for being an ugly city in the opinion of this guy. Then, Montana State University-Billings (MSUB) was named the worst college for your money in Montana by Moneywise.
It's pretty easy to criticize Billings and our city takes cheap shots all the time, but I was really bummed by the Moneywise report. I'm a former part-time faculty member at MSUB and I really enjoyed my time teaching there. I'd like to think I have some insight into the problems identified with the school. While this isn't scientific, it is based on my observations of the student body while teaching at the school on and off for five years.
MSUB has a low graduation rate because it has a high nontraditional student rate.
If you had three part-time jobs, two kids, and were going to school full time, what's the likelihood that you would have graduated from college? I'll speak for myself--I couldn't do it. At one time in my career, I was fully embracing the gig economy and had six part-time jobs. I nearly lost my mind trying to keep everything straight.
Nontraditional students miss class because their boss changed their schedule at the last minute, or the kid's babysitter caught the flu--but they rarely complain. I'm not saying that it's impossible to graduate as a nontraditional student--I had many successful nontraditional students. What I am saying is that MSUB makes education accessible for students in many situations, not all of them ideal for focusing only on learning, and that might lead to low graduation rates. In my opinion, we need schools that cater to nontraditional students.
MSUB has a high average student loan debt. What student doesn't?
The students that attend MSUB, from my observation, were not often receiving assistance from family members to attend school. This assumption would support the observation that many students are nontraditional and had jobs while they were in school. Many students who are fortunate enough to graduate with little to no debt receive assistance from family, or have substantial scholarships and grants. In my observations, that was not the reality for many MSUB students. While Moneywise cited the average student debt of an MSUB graduate is $27,436, Nerdwallet says "The average debt for a bachelor's degree among the class of 2019 was $28,950." Not that different, and MSUB is still less than average.
What was obvious to me about the students at MSUB was that they were willing to work hard despite their challenges, and they were conscientious and realistic about life after college. As a composition and creative writing professor teaching mostly entry-level courses, I rarely had an English major in my classes, and even more rarely did I have students that didn't understand the importance of developing the basic skills that a college education offers: the ability to think critically, write clearly, and read and comprehend complex and varied material, among other things. Basic skills that are valuable even if you don't graduate and skills that will help secure a job to pay off student debt.
Why Should We Support the College Model at all?
The popular conversation now is one that supports moving away from the college model, and I'm not entirely opposed to those ideas. But it's no secret that living in Montana often means that we're "behind" or don't have access to the resources that are readily available in other parts of the country. Not to mention, there are still a host of jobs that will automatically pass over you if you don't have a bachelor's degree, and they might pass on you, even if you do. That's why we should make it as easy as possible for students who want to attend college to do so. Similarly, we should make it easy to attend trade schools, too.
Ranking Montana colleges, to some degree, isn't useful because our focus should be on helping our population reach their highest potential, in whatever way is best for them, rather than sensationalizing the costs and graduation rates of our schools.
If you're disappointed in MSUB, do something. Offer to be a guest lecturer in a class related to your field. Attend a sporting event. Donate. If we are going to take pride in being Montanans, we should take pride in how we educate our Montanans too, regardless of where they choose to go to school.