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In Montana, small changes spur nation's biggest jump in college graduates

Montana State University

Bozeman and Montana State University are shown in an aerial photo taken in July 2010.

BOZEMAN, Mont.—Inside the student union at Montana State University, freshmen and sophomores dig into pizza and espresso brownies and listen to motivational speeches while the marching band belts out the fight song (“We’ve got the vim, we’re here to win!”).

It’s just what it looks and sounds like: a pep rally. But not the conventional kind.

The students in this room are on academic probation, have poor grades or are struggling to adjust to college. All are at risk of dropping out. They’re being exhorted to keep trying, lured here by dinner, entertainment, prizes, even $50 apiece in cash, for coaching in time management, study skills and test-taking.

Thanks to this event, along with a relentless barrage of free tutoring, “success advising” and other support, an estimated three-quarters of these potential dropouts will buck the odds and stay in school, up from barely half who once did.

They’re accomplishing something else, too: helping Montana increase the proportion of its population with college degrees faster than any other state, three years after doing so became a goal of the Obama administration.


While policymakers and university officials in other states continue to haggle over such things as making it easier for students to transfer their academic credits from one school to another, Montana has simply and quietly done them. In the process, it has raised the proportion of its 25- to 64-year-olds who have finished college by more than 6 percent over the last three years, the biggest improvement in the nation, during a time when the rest of the country barely edged up on this measure by 1 percent. Fifteen states actually lost ground.

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The economic stakes of this are huge. The United States has fallen from first to 16th in the world in the proportion of the population with college degrees, and the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce projects a shortfall of three million college-educated educated workers by 2018. That gap could grow to 24 million by 2025, with a cost to the U.S. economy of $600 billion a year in lost wages and income taxes, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

There’s even greater urgency in Montana, where per-capita income is 41st among the 50 states and the number of jobs in agriculture, forestry and mining is declining while there’s been a surge in demand in higher-skill fields such as engineering. Yet Montana’s population is the fourth oldest in the country, with huge numbers of baby boomers nearing retirement and needing to be replaced by younger workers. Unless it can increase its ranks of college graduates, Montana will be short 96,000 of them by 2018—in a state with a population of about 1 million people—according to projections by Georgetown researchers.

“This is about making sure we have a generation that is knowledgeable, that will contribute to the workforce,” said Carina Beck, Montana State’s director of career, internship and student employment services. “Because if we don’t do that, we’re in trouble.”

So are many other states. But they’ve been paralyzed by budget cuts and mired in arguments over how to fix the problem. Nationwide, barely half of four-year college students graduate within six years, and fewer than one in five at two-year community colleges finish in three years. Only 38 percent of Americans have college degrees, when about 60 percent of jobs are expected to require them by 2018.

'Let's get 'er done'
Montana’s success in closing this gap hasn’t resulted from some secret formula, said Judy Heiman, who has worked with Montana officials as an outside consultant on this issue. It’s come from a willingness in this no-nonsense state simply to adopt the ideas that education advocates have been urging for years — but that policymakers, university administrators and faculty elsewhere continue to debate.

By comparison, after she laid out some suggestions to the governor’s education adviser, Heiman recalled, she was taken aback at his abrupt response.

“Let’s get ’er done,” he said, as if preparing to herd cattle on a ranch.

“There really is that sort of approach there,” she said — “that this is what we need to do, so let’s just do it.”

Montana started its push to churn out more degree-holders by bolstering its system of two-year colleges. Like other states, it had to overcome perceptions that two-year colleges are little more than trade schools for students whose grades aren’t good enough to go to four-year universities — a matter made worse in Montana, where many of them were, in fact, vocational high schools before being transformed, in the mid-1990s, into so-called “colleges of technology.”

The two-year colleges were “the red-headed stepchildren” of the higher-education system, said Daniel Bingham, dean of the one in the state capital, Helena.

Some of that reputation was deserved, said Bingham, who once taught prison inmates. “This felt like the state penitentiary when I walked in the door,” he said, gesturing around at the college’s main building, which has since been renovated.

The state Legislature allocated enough money so that the two-year colleges could freeze tuition, even as the cost of public higher education nationwide skyrocketed. Today they’re about half the price of four-year universities, which makes them attractive places to earn the first two years’ worth of credits needed for a bachelor’s degree.

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But unlike at other institutions, where students often aren’t sure what their degrees will get them, the biggest draw is a sharply focused bright light at the end of the tunnel.

Those who want to learn practical skills that require training and for which there are good jobs in Montana, such as welding and advanced machining, are given information about workplace demand and how much money they’re likely to make when they graduate. Those who want to move on to a four-year university and get that bachelor’s degree can see their futures plainly, too, since the state has standardized the names and numbers of 90 percent of the undergraduate courses at its public colleges and universities, making credits easy to transfer.

“Having a clear path is very motivating,” said Heiman, a principal analyst in the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. “Students are much more likely to get lost in the system if they start taking something and find out it’s not going to transfer. It’s just so easy to get discouraged and just give up.”

Same name for the same class
The inability to transfer credits is a huge reason why many students in other states never graduate, education experts agree. Yet faculty often resist accepting credits from other institutions, even within the same university system, because of concerns about quality control.

Montana is one of only seven states that have taken the seemingly simple step of giving identical courses the same names and numbers system-wide. And there was resistance even there.

“It took some fist-banging,” said Tyler Trevor, associate commissioner for planning and analysis in the Montana University System. “It pisses off some old-school faculty. It’s about control, and it’s about faculty control.”

Yet before they were brought into comprehensible alignment, Montana’s various public colleges and universities had 11 different names and numbers for an identical introductory English course, and 22 for introductory algebra, said Trevor. “And they were all the same class.”

All of these changes have helped to double the number of students enrolling in Montana’s two-year colleges— an increase so great that the college of technology in Missoula had to put carpentry students to work adding modular offices and classrooms. And a much higher proportion of them are making it to graduation than before.

“I wish I could roll out some 10-step program with a long name in academic terminology” to account for this, said Bingham. “But, no. We concentrate on the one person. And we cut out the extras.”

A focus on the practical
That’s another ironic advantage Montana has going for it: not a lot of extras. The state has historically invested comparatively little in higher education. It’s 43rd in per-capita support for colleges and universities, with some of the nation’s lowest salaries for faculty and staff. Montana’s entire public higher-education system has fewer students than some individual university campuses in other states — 47,500 in all, even after a 13 percent increase in enrollment over the last three years. (The Ohio State University, by contrast, has more than 64,000 students.) And, unlike other states, for better or worse, Montana has few obscure, low-enrollment programs, focusing instead on practical disciplines like engineering.

“We never strayed from the basics,” said Donald Blackketter, chancellor of Montana Tech.

Blackketter’s university, which sits on a hill overlooking the onetime copper-mining hub of Butte, with a statue of the copper baron Marcus Daly at the entrance, specializes in such disciplines as natural-resource engineering, restoration and ecology, and health care. It has an enviable 97 percent employment rate among recent graduates.

“We don’t offer degrees in which you can’t get a job,” Blackketter said.

That’s an outgrowth of the no-nonsense nature of this frontier state, said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, who has a bumper sticker on his office door that reads, “Montana is for engineers.”

“I understand that we need a certain number of philosophers, and I understand that it’s important to have a certain number of people who study history. But we’re not currently creating a lot of jobs in those areas. So we have to look at what curriculums we really need,” said Schweitzer, a soil scientist by training. “People who are getting degrees in philosophy and history, God bless them, it’s wonderful that they’re critical thinkers. But now they’re going back to a college of technology to get a life skill to get a job.”

The state has taken other steps to increase the proportion of its population with degrees. It lets some students get college credits out of the way while still in high school, having cut through red tape that would have barred university faculty from teaching them because of public-school teacher-certification requirements. It has expanded distance learning to reach far-flung rural residents, with more than 700 courses and 90 degrees available online. Twenty percent of Montana’s college students are enrolled online.

Surrounding students with support
There are still significant challenges. High-paying jobs in the booming eastern Montana oil fields threaten to divert potential students, slowing the enrollment surge. Only 3 percent of adults over 25 take college courses, the lowest rate in the West. And while it may be doing better at increasing the number of college graduates than every other state, Montana is still projected to fall short of the number it needs by 2018 — but not for lack of trying.

Montana State University, surrounded by breathtaking views of the snow-capped Bridger Mountains and Hyalite Peak in the Rocky Mountains, provided 6,500 hours of free tutoring in the 2011-12 year, and fields an army of “success advisers.” It has changed the name of its Office of Student Services to the “Office of Student Success,” whose walls are plastered with inspirational messages and photos of successful alumni. With research showing that many freshmen drop out of college because they feel isolated or homesick, students who participate in the greatest number of extracurricular activities are rewarded with T-shirts, TVs and a grand prize of $1,000 toward tuition.

“It’s focus, focus on why we’re here and what are some of the things we can start doing now,” said the university’s president, Waded Cruzado. “What we have to do is to surround our students with a network of support, the tools to succeed.”

That seems surprisingly simple, conceded Matthew Caires, dean of students. “You would think so,” Caires said. “You would think a notion that we’re here to serve students would be sort of obvious.”

In many other states, however, budget cuts have eliminated precisely those forms of support, making colleges and universities increasingly impersonal and difficult to navigate. Seeing an adviser, for example, can be an exercise in frustration. Academic advisers at community colleges may be responsible for more than 1,000 students apiece. At some California institutions, there are 1,700 students per counselor.

Montana State has even added webinars for hovering parents, enlisting them in the campaign to watch for warning signs that their children might be contemplating dropping out. (“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Caires said.) It counsels faculty to spot problems, too — something Caires said few are trained to do in doctoral programs that focus on their disciplines, not their teaching.

“I get this all the time” from faculty he encourages to report repeat absences or other problems among their students, Caires said: “ ‘Can I do that?’ Well, what are they going to do—sue you for caring too much?”

Last year, this “early alert” system reported 1,100 students, who were invited to see a dean or an advisor to help sort things out. Half took up the offer.

Montana’s notable friendliness helps, too. This is a state where a student’s mother once knitted a sweater for a statue of Montana State’s mascot, a bobcat.

“Can we quantify the effect of that kind of support from the community?” asked Caires. “No. But I think it has to help.”

What seems to be making a difference in Montana, in fact, is the combination of small changes that are adding up to big improvements.

“It didn’t surprise us that these were the results,” said Schweitzer, the governor. “We just decided that it was going to happen.”

This story, "In Montana, small changes spur nation’s biggest jump in college graduates,"was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

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