Montana is an aging state. Approximately 25 percent of our workforce is 55 years old or older. Assuming most retire in the next 10 years, we stand to lose 126,000 people from our workforce of 505,000. A further challenge is that Montana’s high school graduation numbers are not expected to rebound to 2006 levels until 2023.

Montana’s economy is strong with low unemployment rates, strong growth, and increasing demand for new employees with a postsecondary credential. All of this underscores the importance of increasing the number of high school students who go on to college or apprenticeship programs and ensuring they are successful.

We know if Montana high school graduates go on to graduate from a Montana college or university there is higher than a 75 percent chance they will be employed in the state after graduation.

In 2013, Governor Steve Bullock and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian announced the creation of Complete College Montana in conjunction with the national Complete College America (CCA) effort. Over the past four years, the Montana University System has made dramatic progress regarding creating systemwide buy-in to a concerted effort around student success.

Success in math is key

MSU President Waded Cruzado said it best: “Not every student who fails at math will abandon college, but almost every student who leaves college has failed at math.” Over the past three years, the faculty of the MUS have engaged in two efforts to address student success with math.

The first effort was the creation of math pathways ensuring that students were receiving the most appropriate math for their degree path. This began with the realization that college algebra and calculus were not the best options for all students. The faculty created a statistics-based contemporary math option for Liberal Arts and non-science based majors.

The second effort has been to restructure how we as a system approach remedial math for students who fall below a cut line on college entrance examinations. Data analysis showed that students who were placed in one or more remedial math courses had less than a ten percent chance of ever completing a degree.

The MUS faculty devised a co-requisite approach whereby students were enrolled directly into their first college level math course and given the support on the side to be successful. Three institutions piloted this approach (MSU Billings, MSU, and Helena College) and the results were dramatic. In some cases, the students placed into the corequisite sections outperformed those who were deemed college ready.

Momentum within Montana University System

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On Oct. 25, 2017, the MUS hosted a “Complete College Montana Summit” on the campus of the University of Montana. Over 150 faculty and staff attended from all of Montana’s public institutions of higher education and six of the State’s seven tribal colleges. In addition, representatives from K-12 education were present. The Summit was supported by Complete College America and CCA’s President, Tom Sugar, spoke at the event.

The Summit created a new level of system-wide momentum around student success. Since the Summit, all of the MUS institutions have committed to implementing and scaling a broad suite of student success initiatives all focused on ensuring our college students are retained and complete their certificates and degrees on-time thus saving time and money.

On Friday, Dec. 1, the Montana University System was recognized in New Orleans at the national Complete College America Summit as one of the leading states in the nation to have garnered support from all of its public colleges and universities to focus on CCA’s student success momentum strategies.

John E. Cech is deputy commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System and a Complete College America Fellow.

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