Brock Tessman

Brock Tessman, a deputy commissioner in the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, talks about the office's plan to pilot a program in Montana similar to CUNY's successful ASAP program.

When Aryn LongKnife-Jake stopped going to her epidemiology class at Montana State University-Northern, her teacher confronted her.

“He goes, ‘How come you’re not showing up to class?’”

LongKnife-Jake, an aspiring pharmacist and stressed student in Havre, looked at her teacher and formed her fingers into the shape of a W.

“He goes, ‘No. Don’t do that. I’ll keep you,’” she recalled. So instead of filling out the withdrawal paperwork, she hit the books with a tutor.

“He caught me up in all those late assignments, and my teacher accepted them,” LongKnife-Jake said.

That intervention by the teacher and tutoring helped LongKnife-Jake complete the course and stay on track to a degree. This fall, the Montana University System begins recruitment for a pilot program that aims to provide similar support for more students across the state.

Called Montana Project 10, the pilot is based on a model called ASAP, Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, developed at CUNY, City University of New York. Also adopted in Ohio and California, the program has shown to increase retention and graduation.

From 2007 to 2013, ASAP counted an 80.9% retention rate among enrolled students compared to 65.7% for a comparison group, according to data from CUNY. Over a similar period, the three-year graduation rate hit 60.6% for ASAP students compared to 29.9% for a comparison group.

Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education in Montana, said the program and its focus on advising, tutoring, and other support will benefit both students and campuses. For one, more students may graduate sooner, and with less debt.

“I want students to find success when they come to us. I don’t want them to leave with student debt they have almost no ability to pay,” Christian said.

For the university system, the upfront cost is higher, roughly $2,000 to $3,000 per student, with money going toward the difference between a Pell grant and tuition. But the program has demonstrated a lower cost per degree, and Christian believes the program will help pay for itself in boosting retention.

Last fall, retention of freshmen for the entire Montana University System was 69%, according to data from the Commissioner's Office; on the high end, Montana Tech counted 81%, and MSU-Bozeman counted 77%. On the other end of the spectrum, Great Falls College counted just 46% retention, although some students transferred to another public campus in Montana.

“If we can hold a bigger percent (of students), it will pay for a number of these programs because we’re going to have the revenue from successful students to help us through,” Christian said.

Then, the ripples will spread through the state, said Kelly Webster, chief of staff for President Seth Bodnar at the University of Montana. UM is one of the schools participating in the pilot.

"Obviously, this is good for students and it's good for families," Webster said. "But it's good for Montana's economic health, and that is part of our mission as a public institution."

Montana Project 10 also will be piloted at Montana State University in Billings and Helena College. 

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An estimated 350 students will participate, with 200 at UM. Their lower incomes will make them eligible, and they’ll receive financial support, tutoring, direct advising, and get on a career track, even if they end up getting off the track. (“We’re flexible,” Christian said. “It’s still America. You can get off the track if you want. But if this is the track you want to be on, here’s what you need to do to get to the end in four years.”)

The goal is to increase retention and on-time graduation by 10%. Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner for academic, research and student affairs, said such a retention target is realistic and even conservative given earlier outcomes.

Recruitment for students will begin this fall, and the campuses will enroll their first students in fall 2020. Crystine Miller, student success specialist in the Commissioner’s Office, said in addition to academic support, the program will incorporate mental health care and wellness, and address food and housing insecurity.

“Academic performance is really tied to all of these other factors of a person’s life, and if we try to separate those, we just know we’re not going to be successful,” Miller said.

LongKnife-Jake, for instance, also needed support for a temporary disability, and she received it at Northern. She had limped around campus after surgeries to fix her foot.

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“They gave me a handicap sticker (for my car), so that helped out a lot,” LongKnife-Jake said.

The program that helped her at Northern is called the Little River Institute, funded through the U.S. Department of Education as part of its NASNTI effort for Native-Serving Non-Tribal Institutions. It started in 2015 and pushed up fall-to-spring retention for Native students from 57% prior to the grant to 86% in 2019.

Other programs that provide intense support for students exist in Montana as well, but for specific groups. Federal TRIO programs operating at flagships and smaller campuses help disadvantaged students, and student athletes receive extra help, such as academic tutoring, from institutions.

“The student athlete population doesn’t always come to us with the highest GPA, but they ultimately have a higher retention and higher GPA than the general population,” Commissioner Christian said.

At UM, TRIO has operated for 43 years, and its Student Support Services already demonstrates that attention to students' needs pays off, Webster said. For example, just 8% of low-income students complete a bachelor's degree in six years, but 28% of low-income TRIO students in Montana complete a degree in the same period, according to data from the Montana TRIO Fact Book.

Last year, UM President Bodnar merged student affairs and academic affairs, and Webster said the move took place as part of a recognition that campuses must see the student as a whole person. She said the new pilot not only taps into efforts already underway at UM "in pockets," it bundles them for the student.

She said Montana Project 10 also is intentional about delivering support to students when they need it rather than allowing students to drift with the hope they encounter available support. UM serves some 375 students through TRIO, and Webster said the campus will track research results for Montana Project 10 in order to scale it broadly.

"We're going to do it in a really thoughtful way, and President Bodnar is absolutely committed to this kind of student success because it is our obligation," Webster said. "Our students deserve this."

Montana Project 10, like ASAP, will cost more on the front end, but Deputy Commissioner Tessman echoed Christian in saying the cost per degree for the system will be lower. Joe Thiel, director of academic policy and research in the Commissioner’s Office, said ASAP is the first large-scale program launched in a public system that showed a “transformative impact” for students.

Higher education officials said they hope to be able to demonstrate positive outcomes to Montana lawmakers come the 2020 legislative session as well as to the Montana Board of Regents and other decision makers.

“We’re hopeful those investments in student success will pay off,” Christian said.

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