Montana 10 pushes up retention at University of Montana

Regents pledge to expand pilot program

By: - September 15, 2021 6:15 pm

People rolled around campus Monday on roller skates, bicycles and skateboards when the University of Montana kicked off fall semester. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

A pilot program to boost retention for students with lower incomes at the University of Montana has moved the dial so far – even surpassing all freshman retention – that the Montana Board of Regents wants its expansion to be a top priority.

“Nothing warms the heart of a regent like a program that has quantifiable results,” said Regent Loren Bough.

Wednesday, the Montana Board of Regents heard a report on the program, called Montana 10, at its regular meeting. Chair Casey Lozar said a goal to reach more students across the Montana University System through Montana 10 would be a priority for the year.

At the meeting in Butte, the regents also heard – again – a call from faculty leaders of the campuses and student leaders from UM to implement a vaccination or mask requirement, but the regents did not take action. The president of the Montana University Faculty Association Representatives earlier requested a vaccine and mask mandate, and UM student, faculty and staff leaders have adopted resolutions calling for the same.

“We have the best tool available now in the vaccine, and we want to see the MUS use it,” said Joy Honea, president of the faculty association at Montana State University in Billings; she also spoke on behalf of MUSFAR.

At the meeting, Crystine Miller, director of student affairs and engagement in the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, shared Montana 10 outcomes from UM with the regents. The program has launched at UM and Helena College and will launch at MSU-Billings in fall 2022.

The problem across the country for higher education is that many students go to college and leave with debt but no degree, Miller said. And more Pell students, who have lower incomes, end up in that category.

“Montana is on the forefront of addressing this big national problem that higher ed is facing,” Miller said.

Data from UM showed 16 percent more students in the program were retained from fall 2020 to spring 2021 compared to a matched group of students, Miller said. All told, she said 91.3 percent of the students in the program were retained. That compares to a matched group, students in the same demographic but outside the program, that saw just 75.6 percent retention, and it bested the group of all freshmen, retained at 83.7 percent, according to the presentation.

“The project itself is also aimed at really transforming how it is that we deliver on the promise of student success and deliver on the promise of higher education for all of our students in the state,” Miller said.

A couple of other programs tackling similar issues are the Hilleman Scholars at Montana State University, which President Waded Cruzado said has been around for six years and is having a positive cultural effect on the campus, and the Federal TRIO Programs that support disadvantaged students on campuses, Miller said.

She said Montana 10 is focused on closing the equity gap. The program, which costs roughly $2,000 to $3,000 per student a year, is offering financial support for items such as books, creating academic momentum, and providing a sense of belonging for students, Miller said.

To build momentum, students participating in Montana 10 accumulate more credits, and more credits means they can graduate on time and rack up less debt. The average Pell student who drops out with debt owes $8,840, according to the presentation.

Miller noted students in the program counted four more credits than their matched peers at UM for the fall and spring semesters, 24.7 compared to 20.7 with the matched group and 23.3 with all campus freshman. She said that’s the start of the momentum – and the savings from cutting time in school.

“We are one year, 200 students, three campuses into our pilot here. How are we doing? We’re seeing some pretty promising results,” Miller said.

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of academic, research and student affairs in the Commissioner’s Office, said the team used results from only UM since it had about 90 percent of the initial cohort of students.

In an email, Tessman said the funding for the program is coming from a mix of strategic priority funds of the Board of Regents and a pool of unearned performance funding designed to be reinvested in the university system to promote retention and completion.

“As the program grows, the BOR might consider ways to reallocate more internal resources to find that growth, but we are also making plans to pursue external funding – at the state, federal, and private foundation level,” Tessman said in the email.

In the presentation, Miller said the money covers the gap between a Pell grant and tuition and fees at the four-year campuses, and then it also goes toward things like the book stipend. However, Tessman noted that there is no gap between Pell and full tuition and fees at two-year campuses.

Over time, Miller said it would be important to develop an expansion plan with the regents, one campus leaders would support. She said the plan should consider how to pay for the program and do so sustainably; how to grow it without diffusing its effects; and how to maintain rigorous evaluation.

Commissioner Clayton Christian noted federal funding for programs such as Pell will affect Montana 10, and Chair Lozar said he hopes the campus foundations will be in alignment with Board of Regents’ priorities and find ways to support the expansion as well.

Tessman, though, said the costs per student might actually go down over time. At the same time, he said programs such as Montana 10, TRIO, and the Hilleman Scholars make sense compared to other campus activities because they are leading to real outcomes, to credentials and degrees.

“This is a wiser investment of public dollars,” Tessman said. “If we want to focus on outcomes, these programs are the way to go.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”