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Positioning for Future Success

Montana State University’s three-pronged approach helps students stay in school, graduate on time, and reduce their financial burden.

By Waded Cruzado

What does the future of higher education hold? For Montana State University, Bozeman, the answer lies in our mission as a land-grant university established with the purpose of educating the sons and daughters of the working families of America. In order to prepare for an increasingly uncertain future, at Montana State, we have renewed our commitment to access, while ensuring that students stay in school, graduate on time, and reduce their financial burden.

How have we done that? Three main initiatives have focused on encouraging students to enroll in more, rather than fewer, credits; carefully monitoring students' financial well-being; and promoting a university culture of prosperity and success.

Increased Financial Awareness Yields Results

In 2011, Montana State launched a marketing campaign to make students and their families aware of a long-time benefit in which the university charges tuition on only the first 12 credits each semester. This means that resident and out-of-state students pay their maximum tuition amount whether they take 12 credits, 15 credits, 18 credits, or more.

Formerly known by the unappealing name of the "flat spot," the tuition break had been hiding in plain sight for decades. Montana State renamed it the "Freshman 15." Playing on a familiar term, we encouraged students to add more weight to their transcripts (rather than to their waistlines). "Enroll in 15, pay for 12, graduate on time" promotes taking 15 credits per semester rather than 12, which had become a cultural norm.

The Freshman 15 campaign dramatically increased the percentage of freshmen taking 15 credits or more: from 50 percent in 2011 to 64 percent in fall 2015. The message has also gotten through to the rest of undergraduates: In 2011, 46 percent of all undergraduates took 15 or more credits, increasing to 55 percent by fall 2015.

During the same period, Montana State's retention and graduation rates also increased. The retention rate of first-time, full-time freshmen rose from 74 percent to 77 percent, and our six-year graduation rate has moved from 48.9 to 52.4 percent.

Higher retention rates, in turn, result in higher graduation numbers, both elements of which have come into play in Montana since 2013, when the state legislature and Board of Regents agreed on a performance-based funding formula, tying a portion of the university system funding to gains made in retention and graduation.

Helping students take more credits did not hurt Montana State University financially; it has actually contributed to stability and growth.

What about the fact that the university does not derive revenue to cover the cost of those credits? Our budgetary model showed that we had the capacity to accommodate most of the students taking 15 or more credit hours. With increased retention, the additional headcount enrollment resulted in overall tuition revenue growth, which allowed us to offer additional sections where necessary. Helping students take more credits did not hurt the university financially; it has actually contributed to stability and growth.

Montana State University's Financial Literacy Office actively
markets its presence on campus and offers small incentives
for students to make an appointment.

Financial Literacy

Another successful program is our "Know Your Debt" letter, which monitors the financial well-being of students. The federal government requires that students be informed regularly about the outstanding balance on their loans when they leave school, but not while enrolled. Beginning in 2013, Montana State started sending letters to students with higher than average debt or with debt levels that will be difficult to pay back, given average salary levels among graduates in their particular major program.

Written in a friendly tone, the Know Your Debt letter notifies students of the amount of their current student loan debt, encourages them to take advantage of the Freshman 15 program, and invites them to come to the MSU Financial Literacy Office for a consultation and receive a $20 incentive.

Research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education found that students receiving the Know Your Debt letter took more credits, reduced their debt loads by about one-third, and had higher GPAs in the subsequent semester. In addition, the study found that more students in the program migrated to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors.

Strong Economic Foundation

At Montana State, we believe programs such as the Freshman 15 and the Know Your Debt letter promote a healthy public higher education system. These and other student-centered initiatives emphasize a mindset that success and prosperity are attainable in college and in life.

Our campuswide commitment to increasing our focus on student retention and graduation is delivering dividends—both to our students and to the university. While it is difficult to quantify the effect such publicity has on enrollment, anecdotal evidence indicates that our focus on being a land-grant institution committed to student success, financial well-being and prosperity are becoming factors in enrollment decisions of prospective students and their families. Montana State has set enrollment records for nine of the past 10 years.

By creating a culture that focuses on assisting our students staying in school, graduating, and managing their debt, Montana State University is seeing its own economic foundation become stronger. Importantly for the future, as a land-grant university, this is how we remain committed to a stronger democracy based on higher education for all.

WADED CRUZADO is president, Montana State University, Bozeman.