Montana Leads Nation in Increase of College Grads

By Beacon Staff

Montana saw the largest increase in the number of students graduating from college in the nation, according to a report from a nonprofit educational news organization.

The Hechinger Report, released in June, found that Montana has raised its percentage of 25- to 64-year-olds who obtained a college degree by more than 6 percent in the past three years. That’s the highest rate in the nation, the report notes.

Most of the rest of the country increased in this category by about 1 percent, the report states, and over a dozen states saw decreases. Nevada ranked 50th, losing over 2 percent.

Montana also fared well in a July 12 report from the U.S. Department of Education, which showed that the state increased its number of college graduates by 3.2 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer released a statement on the numbers, touting the two-year tuition freeze on all college campuses, and the four-year freeze at all two-year colleges. He also noted other efforts promoted through college campuses and even high schools that promote graduation success.

“With common course numbering, improvements in transferability of credits and more programs for high school students to get college credits we are leading the nation in preparing our citizens for the future,” Schweitzer said.

One of the reasons for Montana’s success cited in the report is the strength of the two-year community colleges. Flathead Valley Community College has seen record numbers of graduates in the past several years, due largely to people going back to school for retraining during the recession.

The school has introduced a plethora of new programs since the recession hit, aimed at training its students for jobs needed in the valley. The college was in touch with local businesses to see what their needs were, leading to tweaks in programs or creating whole new ones.

The college has also worked on retaining students through scholarships, classroom innovations and learning groups, according to previous discussions with FVCC officials.

FVCC president Jane Karas noted that the Hechinger Report focused on how Montana’s initiative to transition the state’s colleges of technology to be more like community colleges, and said FVCC’s students have historically had successful transfers to four-year institutions.

“FVCC has instituted an early alert system to notify faculty and counselors of students who are struggling and need assistance, so that we can work with them to successfully complete their degrees,” Karas wrote in prepared statement. “The faculty and staff at FVCC understand the importance of connecting with students as individuals to help them stay engaged throughout their time at the college.”

Success at the state’s larger campuses is due in large part to a genuine focus on the students, according to Montana State University’s Dean of Students Matt Caires.

Caires, who spent the last 10 years at the University of Wyoming, said states like Montana and Wyoming, with smaller populations, expect contact between the state’s leaders and its residents.

For example, Caires said not only would it seem normal for a Montana resident to see the governor out grocery shopping, it would be typical if he remembered the resident’s name if they had met before.

The same sort of experience should take place on a university’s campus, Caires said.

“I think there’s an expectation from our parents and our students that our faculty, staff and administration will be accessible,” Caires said.

MSU President Waded Cruzado works to be accessible on campus, he said, and sets the tone for the rest of the university. It also helps that MSU is a medium-sized school, not a large university where students compete for attention against 35,000 other people.

“We’re a very accessible faculty and community,” Caires said.

The faculty tends to keep an eye on students who may be on the edge of academic trouble, Caires said. He compared it to growing up in Idaho, where his parents taught him that if someone doesn’t see their neighbor’s truck move for a week, the other neighbors should knock on the door to make sure everything is all right.

“That’s the culture in Montana,” Caires said. “We notice when these students aren’t in class. [The professors] don’t ignore it or say, ‘I’m too busy.’”

Caires also acknowledged the economy’s part in the rise in graduation rates. A lot of people went back to school because they found they were out of work and likely needed a degree to access their best prospects.

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