Minzi Thomas, an expert at the Education Design Lab, takes Missoula College students through an exercise meant to better understand their needs while designing stackable credential courses. (Photo by Nick Fouriezos)

It’s a tough time for higher education across the country. As tuition and student debt soars, the perceived value of a degree has fallen, contributing to plummeting enrollments nationwide

Meanwhile, colleges and universities are being asked to do more than ever, in some communities serving as everything from abortion providers to firefighters … while also serving as convenient punching bags for billionaire hedge fund managers and presidential candidates in a divisive election year. 

And yet, the existential threat to higher education may be something far less headline-worthy.

It may just come down to a single word: change. The colleges that can respond well to it could succeed. Those that falter may be left behind.

I recently visited the Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana, and spoke with Rebecca Conroy, a healthcare executive who has worked the past three decades at the same hospital she was born in.

In all that time, she has never seen as much change in her community as she has over the last three years.

Conroy, the chief transformational officer at Bitterroot Health watched as the pandemic turned her coworkers into frontline workers, and her workforce shortage into a workforce disaster.

Her essential workers have been essentially priced out of their own community, displaced by out-of-state teleworkers as housing prices tripled and interest rates skyrocketed amid the real estate runup.

Those sudden changes have created some strange workforce challenges. After years of struggling to get enough providers to meet the aging region’s growing medical needs, Conroy suddenly has plenty of doctors interested in moving to the area known for picaresque mountain vistas captured in the hit show Yellowstone.

Since Yellowstone, everyone wants to be a cowboy,” she says.

Now, though, the bigger challenge is training and hiring enough medical assistants to support those doctors — particularly since most of those workers can’t afford to live nearby even after raising pay to $20 an hour.

“I never thought that could be the case,” Conroy says.

Chief Joseph Ranch, in Darby, Montana, is also the film site for the Dutton family home in Yellowstone. (Courtesy @chiefjosephranch, Instagram)

And it’s not just in the Bitterroot Valley. Rural workforces across America have been stretched beyond recognition in the wake of the pandemic, exposing a persistent lack of affordable housing amid a sudden shift toward telework, plus an outsize demand for hands-on labor in medical, construction, and other fields. 

The rapid pace of change is forcing rural America to answer a tricky question: Who is responsible for training people in the skills and education they need to fill these roles … and can the traditional higher education system keep up?

States increasingly are turning to educators to fill those gaps, from Idaho to Kansas and Wyoming, hoping to create new talent pipelines that can more quickly adapt to evolving business demands — truncating traditional degrees into apprenticeships, certifications, and training programs measured in weeks or months instead of years.

A statewide effort to address rapidly changing workforce needs.

The answer isn’t so clear, even in Montana, where dozens of college presidents, national policy experts, and workforce leaders recently met with employers like Conroy to start finding solutions.

“So, talk a little bit about the state of the talent pipeline for this medical assistant role. What are the challenges and opportunities?” they asked her.

“Well,” she began,” the state of the talent is … poor.”

In September, Montana announced a new initiative: A partnership with its 12 community colleges and the national nonprofit Education Design Lab to create more than a dozen “micro-pathways” — stackable credential programs that can be earned in less than a year — to put people either on a path to earning an associate degree or immediately getting hired in key industries, from health and construction to manufacturing and agriculture.

More Rural Higher Ed News

Higher education in ‘political crosshairs’. This piece from Katherine Knott of Inside Higher Ed does a good job of spelling out academia’s precarious position as the 2024 election heats up, as well as the particularly prominent role its playing in this cycle.

  • Last year’s controversies over President Biden’s attempts to cancel student debt, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority striking down that effort along with race-conscious admissions policies, and the tumult on campuses over the Israel-Hamas war have only turned up the heat on colleges and universities.

Report: Four challenges for rural colleges. New research by the Institute for College Access and Success highlights the key challenges rural students face while seeking degrees, showcasing opportunities to address the problem by creating more summer programs, providing more investment/financial aid resources, and working to bridge knowledge gaps.

The answer isn’t so clear, even in Montana, where dozens of college presidents, national policy experts, and workforce leaders recently met with employers like Conroy to start finding solutions.

“So, talk a little bit about the state of the talent pipeline for this medical assistant role. What are the challenges and opportunities?” they asked her.

“Well,” she began,” the state of the talent is … poor.”

In September, Montana announced a new initiative: A partnership with its 12 community colleges and the national nonprofit Education Design Lab to create more than a dozen “micro-pathways” — stackable credential programs that can be earned in less than a year — to put people either on a path to earning an associate degree or immediately getting hired in key industries, from health and construction to manufacturing and agriculture.

This November meeting was convened by the Education Design Lab.Their goal? To ask employers, like Conroy, what skills and knowledge their students needed to have to be successful, so they could design a certificate course that would make sure students are more qualified upon graduating. 

However, as Conroy began discussing the changing demands on medical assistants, she found herself talking less and less about the needs they had originally outlined in the job description. Instead, she spoke about staffers having to calm down angry patients, frustrated at times by their care or having to wait weeks to see their overbooked providers.

Some days, MAs spend more than half their shift taking phone calls from suicidal patients, trying to talk them down from the brink and get them the help they need.

De-escalation — not pharmacology training or medical knowledge — was the No. 1 job requirement these days, Conroy suddenly realized.

“It’s becoming a skill set that all of our staff need. People are simply not their best selves since COVID,” Conroy said.

Rooting out and addressing surprising education needs like those are exactly what Montana and other states hope more flexible, skills-based education systems can achieve, with Thomas saying that her team could add a de-escalatin and suicide prevention section into the curriculum.

But in a course that’s just a few months long, how do you teach someone how to talk a suicidal patient off the ledge?

“I’m glad you pointed out that skill is not listed here,” Thomas responded. “We will definitely work on that.”

P.S. If this feels like a cliffhanger, well, you’re right! I’ll be sharing more about my experience in Montana in coming weeks, so stay tuned.


This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.