March 27, 2001 11:00 pm

The Eastern Oregon Collaborative Colleges Center, a partnership among the public colleges in La Grande, Pendleton and Ontario, has been so enormously successful, its crazy to think that the program may eventually disappear because of a lack of money.

But that could be the fate of the center if the Oregon Legislature does not kick in the necessary dollars to keep the program going. Gov. John Kitzhabers budget does not provide funding for the program in 2001-03.

The growth of EOCCC has been phenomenal since the Legislature established the cooperative educational program in 1997. The center had 50 students by 1998. That number has swelled to 800.

And why not? The collaborative center, involving cooperation among Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton and Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, is serving students who otherwise might not be enrolled in degree programs at all.

EOCCC enables students at BMCC and TVCC to earn degrees from Eastern without leaving their campuses. The partnership also allows students in La Grande to benefit from programs at the outlying two-year schools. In addition, many students who live in John Day, Burns, Enterprise and other communities in the vast 10-county Eastern Oregon region, are also working on degrees.

Baccalaureate, four-year degrees offered through Eastern include business and economics; business administration; teacher education; philosophy, politics and economics; computer science and multimedia; liberal studies; and agricultural science.

Associate two-year degrees are available in office administration; early childhood education; corrections and criminal justice; and agriculture-horticulture.

In addition, some non-degree programs are offered by the collaborative center including small business development, computer training and continuing education for law-enforcement officers.

How do place-bound students enrolled in EOCCC stay up with their classes? Courses are delivered in a number of ways, including by the Internet, through video conferences and some face-to-face, classroom instruction.

It hasnt been easy for the three colleges to coordinate classes and programs to serve the region. But the effort is paying off in the growing number of students now pursuing degrees. House Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin, and Sen. David Nelson, R-Pendleton, should take the lead in encouraging their colleagues in the Legislature to get solidly behind the Eastern Oregon Collaborative Colleges Center.

Its the right program for the 21st century to meet the needs of hundreds of students in the vast Eastern Oregon territory.