Montana State University announced with pride this fall the news that it had enrolled a record 13,559 students.

The number that seldom makes the headlines, however, is that only half the students who start at MSU actually graduate.

The story is somewhat better for colleges nationwide. About 57 percent of students who enroll in U.S. four-year colleges earn a degree in six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Such low graduation rates have alarmed a lot of people, from education leaders to economists. They see America slipping behind countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas when it comes to producing college grads capable of competing in a global economy.

President Barack Obama this summer said the country has fallen from first to 12th place in the number of young people graduating from college. He called for graduating millions more students by 2020 so that America will again lead the world.

Achieving that goal would depend a lot on America's public universities, which have been labeled "failure factories" by economist Mark Schneider, writing for the American Enterprise Institute. The New York Times last year cited several colleges, including the University of Montana, as examples of those that fail to graduate most of their students.

At MSU, campus leaders have been trying for years to raise the graduation rate and related "retention" rate, which measures how many freshmen return for their sophomore year instead of dropping out.

Despite their efforts, MSU's graduation and retention numbers have improved little in the past decade.

This fall MSU finally had some encouraging news. The retention rate for last year's freshmen who returned this fall was 74 percent -- 2 points higher than last year and a record for the past 10 years.

However, the number of students who graduate in six years, the most commonly used measure of U.S. colleges, slipped slightly at MSU this year from 48 to 47 percent. Ten years ago, the graduation rate was 44 percent.

Seven years after freshmen start at MSU, the graduation rates usually inches above 50 percent, and after that, the numbers stay pretty flat.

MSU's 47 percent six-year graduation rate puts it only a few points higher than UM's. This year the Missoula campus raised its graduation rate to 45 percent, according to UM's new president. UM's 2010 Common Data Set put UM's retention rate at 73 percent.

Renewed attention to the goal of graduation is coming from MSU's new president and the Montana Board of Regents. As part of their effort to "reform and reinvent" the University System, the regents have set the ambitious goal of raising Montanans' education level by getting more people to earn a two-year or four-year degree.

As one way to reach that goal, the regents are working on a new incentive plan, called performance-based budgeting. Instead of rewarding state campuses with more money for getting more students enrolled, it would reward them for getting more students successfully educated.

The new plan, still being hammered out and already controversial, could end up distributing millions of state dollars according to which campuses are most successful in getting students to earn class credits and move toward graduation.

MSU President Waded Cruzado highlighted the graduation issue in her September inauguration speech. Land-grant colleges like MSU were created 150 years ago, she said, to educate not just the best-prepared students but "to invite everyone to succeed."

"Therefore," Cruzado said, "the fact that we lose almost a third of our students in their first year and that slightly less than half graduate after six years is, simply, unacceptable."

Cruzado has been optimistic about raising the retention and graduation rates, calling them "low-hanging fruit."

Yet MSU faces some disadvantages as it strives to persuade students to stay in school and earn a diploma. For one, MSU has more male than female students (53 to 47 percent), and women are more likely to graduate than men. MSU's graduation rates are 51.8 percent for women and 43.7 percent for men.

Another disadvantage is that MSU isn't the hardest college in the country to get into. Freshmen need a 2.5 high school grade point average or an ACT score of 22 to gain admission (though MSU administrators are quick to point out that the average ACT score for full-time freshmen has risen to 25).

Statistics from "Crossing the Finish Line," a book about improving U.S. graduation rates by former presidents of Princeton and Macalester College, show that students are more likely to graduate the more selective the college they attend.

At the most selective colleges, 71 to 89 percent of students graduate. At the least selective, 48 to 59 percent of students succeed.

‘We want you back'

Why do MSU students drop out? What is the university doing to keep students in college? And what more should MSU do?

Carina Beck is one of several key people at MSU trying to answer those questions.

Beck, director of the office that helps students find careers and internships, co-chairs MSU's Student Success and Retention Committee. She's assisting Allen Yarnell, whose title was recently changed from "vice president for student affairs" to "vice president for student success," reflecting the priority Cruzado has placed on retention.

Beck said MSU has surveyed about 400 students, asking why they left or stayed in school. The survey turned up some surprising results.

"Money wasn't a factor," she said.

A much bigger factor for students who quit was that they "didn't have a clear career direction," she said.

So MSU is ramping up its career coaching with freshmen and its advising to help undecided students pick a major.

Another key issue is "affinity," or whether students feel connected to MSU. That can mean making friends, having a meaningful talk with a faculty member or identifying as a Bobcat.

Students who came from high schools where they were well known can struggle at MSU if they feel anonymous, Beck said.

Another key factor in retention was whether students found their academic studies interesting and exciting, or not.

Some students left MSU for another opportunity, like a high-paying job in the oil fields or going into the military. And some left for personal reasons, like a break-up with a boyfriend.

A number of students who left MSU transferred to other colleges. Even if they went to Harvard, they would show up in MSU statistics as failing to graduate. The Montana University System is working on ways to track students who transfer to other state colleges, which could raise Montana's overall college graduation rate.

After months of collecting data on retention, MSU now is rolling out some new initiatives, Beck said.

In January the university will launch "Return to Learn to Earn a Degree." MSU staff will make a "monumental effort," Beck said, to phone, write or e-mail hundreds of former students who have left the university in the last three years.

MSU will urge former students to return to college, and offer career coaching, help with study skills and other support.

"We want you back" will be the message to former students, Beck said. "Come back - let's complete your degree."

Incentives

MSU isn't above trying a bit of bribery to get students engaged with the school and taking steps that could help them toward graduation.

The most recent addition to MSU's retention program is called Champ Change.

Like an airline's frequent flier program, it offers incentives. Every time students go to a study center, work out in the Student Fitness Center, or get career coaching, for example, they can swipe their ‘Cat Card and earn points.

At the end of the semester, the points will make students eligible for auction prizes -- restaurant meals, $500 gift cards at Target, even $1,000 free tuition.

One new program that's being expanded is called MSU 101. Usually held at the start of the semester, it offers answers on studying, career development, academic advising and other questions. This week it will be offered mid-semester for the first time, and hundreds of students have been invited to Tuesday's workshop.

MSU has a long list of ongoing efforts to improve student retention. Those include having student peers mentor "at-risk" freshmen who've been getting D's and F's in class, a program that has been highly successful, Beck said.

One of the biggest retention programs is MSU's freshmen seminars, said Diane Donnelly, director of University Studies.

Freshman seminars offer small classes of around 20 students each, led by upper-class student mentors and professors who want to teach first-year students.

University Studies welcomes students who are undecided about their majors, which includes about one-third of freshmen. It also runs an Academic Advising Center that's open to all students, to help them figure out how to navigate through the university maze and find the right major.

This year the center has a new, easy-to-find location on the first floor of renovated Gaines Hall, instead of being almost hidden up on the fourth floor of Reid Hall.

Donnelly said even in Reid Hall, the center received 10,000 visits from students a year.

The advising center also has one staff member dedicated to helping students change majors. Donnelly said students who want to switch majors are often afraid of talking to advisors in their major, worried that leaving the major will anger their advisors.

MSU has long offered academic help at the Math Center and Writing Center in Wilson Hall, as well as study centers for chemistry, physics and business students.

Service-learning is another way to get students excited about what they're learning by applying it in the real world, Cruzado said. Speaking recently at a national conference on service-learning, she talked about MSU's Engineers Without Borders chapter. Student volunteers get hands-on experience in raising money and installing water wells at rural schools in Kenya.

An MSU nursing program for American Indian students, which gets one-year students helping out at community clinics, "galvanizes" students and raises their retention rate about 6 percent, Cruzado said.

"They say, ‘I better complete my degree,'" she said.

UM proposals

UM's new president, Royce Engstrom, told the Board of Regents in September that efforts to raise graduation and retention rates are starting to pay off, with a 2 percentage point increases this year in its retention and six-year graduation rates.

"We're on our way," Engstrom said.

UM is trying some ideas that MSU hasn't tried, like the Four Bear program, which guarantees students can graduate in four years if they commit to certain steps.

Engstrom also talked about UM's proposals. One would change how tuition is charged to encourage full-time enrollment and make part-time enrollment a "disadvantage." Another would offer automatic university admission to Montana high school students who take more rigorous college-prep classes, including two years of a foreign language, so they'd be more ready for college work. UM's Partnering for Student Success committee found that because other states' universities have tougher admission standards, students often perceive UM as an "inferior" school.

UM has also set targets, Engstrom said, of an 80 percent retention rate and 52 to 53 percent graduation rate.

MSU hasn't set formal targets.

"Our target and goal is to do better every year," Beck said.

Getting more students to graduate is important for many reasons, Beck said. Nationally, it makes the country more competitive. For Montana, it strengthens the workforce.

In Montana, nearly 38 percent of the working-age population has either a two-year or four-year degree, which matches the national average. The nonprofit Lumina Foundation for Education has set a national goal of 60 percent by 2025.

For students and their families, graduation means a successful investment in their future, as well as the likelihood of a higher salary, Beck said.

In this recession, the unemployment rate for Americans with college degrees is 4.4 percent, compared to 10 percent for high school grads and 9.1 percent for those who have some college but never graduated, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Beck said she's optimistic MSU can help more students succeed and earn diplomas. It only takes 20 more students staying in school to raise MSU's retention rate by 1 percent, she said.

"It will take a village, it will take all of us," Beck said. "If we're committed, we can do it."

Gail Schontzler can be reach

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