Montana State University is keeping students in school and graduating them on time at the highest rates in modern university history. The efforts were highlighted today during a presentation of MSU’s annual Fall Institutional Report to campus leaders.

“We at Montana State University know that attracting new students is not enough,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “Our job is not done unless they graduate.

Photo by Montana State University

“Increasing the number of students who stay in school and graduate is very hard to do, and it is usually done at other universities by narrowing access to accept only the most accomplished and highest-performing students,” she added. “MSU is leading the nation in showing this can be done by preserving our commitment to be a university for all students. At MSU, it is not about chasing privilege, but choosing promise.”

This fall the university saw an increase in the number of students returning to MSU for a second year of school, a measure known as “retention.” Some 77.2 percent of first-time, full-time students returned for their second year — the highest percentage in modern MSU recordkeeping for nearly 30 years. The university has made increasing freshman-to-sophomore retention one of its priorities because it increases the likelihood that students will ultimately finish their degrees.

University leaders attribute the gains in retention to a number of academic and engagement efforts, including early efforts to help students succeed in math and writing courses and programs urging students to take at least 15 credits per semester known as the Freshman 15 and Sophomore Surge, which pairs upperclassmen mentors with freshmen.

“These efforts are making a real difference,” said Bob Mokwa, MSU executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “These programs have included considerable faculty involvement, and we are grateful for their dedication to students.”

Mokwa pointed to co-requisite education – taking developmental writing or math courses in the same semester as other courses – as one important program that helps students stay in school and earn their degrees on time.

For example, when students arrive at MSU and their math or writing placement score does not meet the level required for their chosen major, they may enroll in developmental level mathematics or writing courses at Gallatin College MSU while simultaneously enrolling in a math and writing course that will earn them credit toward their degree. This allows students to get the instruction and support they need and to progress in coursework toward their degree. A more traditional model – which MSU is moving away from – would require students to take the developmental courses one semester and then the for-credit courses the next semester.

The program not only shortens the time it takes students to complete core writing coursework, but the courses have also been designed to emphasize critical classroom skills – such as note-taking, time management and study skills – that are vital to students’ success in other MSU classes, Mokwa said.

“Students appreciate the small class sizes and extra time spent on improving their reading and writing processes,” said Kyndra Campbell, program director of developmental writing at Gallatin College MSU. “Students also comment on the direct application of these core literacy skills in their other courses.”

Another major contributor to student retention is MSU’s Freshman 15 campaign, which encourages students to take at least 15 credits per semester to keep them on track to graduate in four years and save them thousands of dollars in educational, housing and food costs. Montana University System students do not pay any additional tuition beyond their first 12 credits per semester.

When the Freshman 15 campaign launched in 2011, only 50 percent of MSU freshmen took 15 credits or more. This fall, that number is 72 percent — a new record.

Other notable progress toward a strategic goal came in MSU’s graduation rates, which increased to record numbers, according to the data. Notably, the university’s four-year graduation rate jumped more than 2 points to 29.3 percent this fall. In all, the four-year rate has gone up nearly 10 points in the past six years. At the same time, MSU’s six-year graduation rate, the figure tracked by the federal government, also went up 2.6 points to 54.7 percent.

“I often tell parents that we love having their kids here at MSU, but I want them out of here in four years, degree in hand,” Cruzado said. “This year’s numbers show that our students are increasingly on that path — forming bonds with the university that keep them coming back, taking heavier course loads and completing their degrees.”

Along with increased graduation rates, MSU’s average student debt for 2017-18 declined by more than $1,200 compared to the prior academic year. The university attributed the drop not only to graduation rates but also to the university’s Know Your Debt letters, which are sent to students who are borrowing at levels higher than recommended based upon expected level of income or ability to repay loans upon graduation. The letters, which have won praise from Bloomberg Business News, help students understand their loan debt and encourage them to work with the Office of Financial Education located in the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success to develop a financial plan to understand budgeting, savings and student loans.

“Staff in our Office of Financial Aid Services and Office of Financial Education have also worked diligently to counsel students on taking out loans only for what they need, not all they are eligible for,” Cruzado said. “Changing the conversation has been very helpful to our students.”

Efforts to get students involved in campus life also increase the likelihood that students will stay in school and graduate, according to Chris Kearns, vice president for student success.

“Both MSU data and national best practices show that a student that gets involved with clubs or outside-classroom activities is more likely to stay in school,” Kearns said. “Faculty and staff across the university have been helping with this effort.”

One example is the Sophomore Surge, which helps freshmen students “surge” into the sophomore year by pairing them with mentors from the sophomore, junior and senior classes. The program gives new students one more way to connect with the university and learn from their fellow students’ habits, practices and tips that can help them be successful in college.

The university piloted the program last year with about 800 freshmen students and saw success, compared to similar students the year before: More of them stayed in school for their second fall, Kearns said. He added that working with first-year students is also a great leadership experience for peer mentors.

“As a university, we’ve made a concerted effort to offer programs and services aimed at keeping students in school and on their ways to degrees,” Kearns said. “We will do our best to make sure that no student leaves for a lack of academic or personal help.”

This story was provided by Montana state University