MSU attracts state's brightest
Montana State University students head to class Tuesday morning inside Reid Hall. A majority of the top tier high school graduates who do stay in Montana go to MSU.

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The Grizzlies may have bragging rights in football, but the Bobcats are kicking it when it comes to recruiting Montana's best and brightest students.

The trend has been true for more than a decade, but was highlighted recently in a Missoulian report, headlined, "Most of Montana's brightest high-schoolers head to MSU, out of state."

Number-crunchers at the Montana State University and the state higher education office in Helena confirmed the latest statistics.

Of the Montana high school students who earned high scores (30 or better) on the ACT college-entry exam last year, 99 enrolled at Montana State University's Bozeman campus.

That was more than all other state campuses combined, and double the 40 who chose the University of Montana in Missoula.

A perfect ACT combined score is 36, and only four Montana high-school students did that well. Two of them enrolled at MSU.

The other perfect-scorers apparently went out of state for college, as did the majority of the 365 Montana high-school students who scored 30 or better on the ACT, which put them in the top 6 percent statewide. Just 165 of those top grads or 45 percent chose to attend Montana state colleges.

When it comes to students bright enough to receive free tuition through the Montana University System's Honors Scholarships, 122 chose MSU - again more than all other Montana colleges combined. Each year the system awards only 200 or so of those scholarships; 57 picked UM.

Joe Fedock, MSU's interim provost, wasn't surprised when he read the Missoulian report that more bright students choose MSU.

"This has been shown to be the case quite a few years," Fedock said. He attributed the trend to "our historic strengths in engineering and sciences."

"Montana State is really an outstanding undergraduate institution," said Ilse-Mari Lee, MSU Honors Program director.

This fall a record 312 students have applied for MSU's Honors Program - a big jump from last year's record of 238, Lee said. The honors freshmen arrive with an average ACT score of 29.4. The new arrivals will expand MSU's honors enrollment to 949, surpassing last year's record of 801.

Jim Rimpau, MSU vice president for planning and chief information officer, agreed that the Bozeman campus has historically attracted bright kids.

"A lot of really good test-takers go into engineering and sciences," Rimpau said.

The average ACT score for all MSU freshmen last year was 24 vs. 23 for UM.

Things haven't changed in 11 years. The Bozeman Chronicle reported in a 1999 article (headlined "Rivalry on the football field not the only way to decide who's Numero Uno") that the average ACT scores for all MSU freshmen was 23.1 vs. 21.9 at UM.

MSU's record in research and stress on undergraduate research also helps attract students. Fedock pointed out that MSU undergrads have won a large number of national Goldwater Scholarships to help them pursue science and math studies. Over the years, 51 MSU students have earned Goldwater awards, the 14th highest record in the nation, ahead of colleges like the University of Washington, Purdue and University of Minnesota, said Greg Young, vice provost for undergraduate education.

Young added that MSU being named by the Carnegie Foundation to its list of 96 top universities with "very high research activity" also has an impact.

"We've had parents from New England say, ‘I thought you were just a skiing college until I saw the Carnegie classification,'" Young said.

MSU scientists have also been featured in prestigious journals like Science and Nature, Young said.

Students know that at MSU they can do "neat things" like research in Yellowstone National Park, said Tyler Trevor, associate commissioner of higher education for planning and analysis, who put together the statistics on ACT scores.

Trevor said while more than half the Montana students with top ACT scores are heading out of state, university leaders aren't worried about a brain drain.

"They have opportunities around the nation," Trevor said. Attracting nearly half those students is good, he said, "particularly given their mobility and scholarships offered across the nation."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.

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