Rolf Groseth’s call to enroll and graduate more American Indian students at Montana State University Billings was so important that he made a public point of it twice recently.
The first came during his state-of-the-university speech in August and then again a month later at his formal installation as the new MSU Billings chancellor.
Other state campuses are working hard to recruit and keep American Indian students, too.
Not only will graduating more Indian students improve their lives and their home communities, there’s a practical reason to seek out those students, said Walter Fleming, head of the Native American Studies Department at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Nearly 12 percent of all K-12 students in the state are Indian, according to the Office of Public Instruction, while American Indians made up a little more than 6 percent of Montana’s total population in 2010.
The relatively large percentage of children in reservation schools makes them an attractive pool of potential recruits for colleges during a time when the number of high school students in the general population is leveling off.
Although the percentage of Indian students at MSU Billings nearly equals the percentage of Indians in the state, Billings should continue to increase the number of American Indian students because their population is higher in Eastern Montana, Groseth said.
“We live in Indian Country, and our student body and campus should be more reflective of that,” he said in August.
This fall, MSU Billings has 343 American Indian students enrolled, which is 6.5 percent of the total student body.
Although Groseth is pleased with the 16 percent increase over last year, he would like to see that number grow to at least 400 students. He also wants to increase enrollment of Hispanics, which are a growing segment of the state’s population.
The biggest problem isn’t getting American Indians to campus, it’s keeping them enrolled all the way through graduation, said Reno Charette, director of MSU Billings’ Office of American Indian Outreach and Diversity Center. Charette is a member of the Crow Tribe and a Turtle Mountain Chippewa descendant who was raised on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
Of the Native American students enrolling at MSU Billings in 2004, only 7 percent had graduated by 2010. The six-year graduation rate for the student body as a whole was 30 percent during that same time.
The biggest dropout happens between freshman and sophomore years because of financial difficulties, being away from extended families and big city distractions that cut into study time.
Studying at a mostly white campus also can be difficult.
“Native American students like to see other Native Americans,” said Dominic Old Elk, a student who will graduate this December.
And it’s not just other Indian students they want to see. It would be helpful to have more than one or two American Indian faculty members, he said.
Some students also leave school to raise children, take care of a family member or get a full-time job to support their families.
Charette takes a longer perspective on graduation rates, preferring the term “stop out” rather than “drop out” to describe students who leave school before getting a degree but may come back.
She includes herself among American Indian students who returned to school years after first attending.
After graduating from high school in St. Labre on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 1974, Charette went to the University of Montana in Missoula. Not yet ready for college, she left to raise three children, going back to school more than 10 years later at UM to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“When I returned, I pursued school with a vengeance,” she said. School was a way not only to support her own family, but to work with and help other Native Americans.
By the time she was in graduate school, she had a fourth child and now is the grandmother of five.
Once students reach their junior and senior years in college, with graduation in sight, things usually get easier.
Charette has seen students overcome major obstacles — including financial setbacks, the death of family members and contentious divorces — to go on to graduate.
MSU Billings has long recruited American Indian students, said Stacy Klippenstein, vice chancellor for student affairs.
Working with tribal colleges has been a key strategy.
When students start at tribal colleges, they have a higher graduation rate after they go on to a four-year school.
“We support tribal colleges,” Charette said.
Three years ago, MSU Billings staff members began going to Chief Dull Knife College on the Northern Cheyenne reservation to help its upcoming graduates to make a successful transition to four-year schools.
MSU Billings also has 2-plus-2 programs with Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap tribal colleges, in which students complete general education classes at the reservation schools and then transfer to Billings to finish their degrees.
Online classes also have made it easier for Native American students to earn degrees while living at home. Even students in their late teens and early 20s may be taking care of elderly relatives and need to stay at home, Charette said.
The Montana University System has helped by standardizing many general education courses and their numbering throughout state schools so those classes can easily transfer from one school to another. MSU Billings also has worked with tribal colleges to align coursework.
MSU colleges and universities also offer tuition waivers for students with financial need who are at least one-quarter American Indian.
Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell also has an Indian tuition waiver. Dawson Community College in Glendive has a limited number of tuition waivers for Montana American Indians students. At Miles Community College in Miles City, Native American students compete well for scholarships that include tuition waivers.
Still, MSU Billings’ new chancellor wants to do more.
This spring and summer, Groseth and several MSU Billings administrators visited tribal leaders and educators at four Montana reservations to learn how to improve services to Indian students.
They found students liked coming to MSU Billings and tribal leaders appreciated MSU Billings alumni returning home to work as teachers, healthcare workers and in other occupations.
But they also heard that MSU Billings could do more to understand students’ cultures and help students adjust to the campus, fill out financial aid forms and get academic advising.
Groseth plans to go to other Montana reservations in the future.
Charette already is putting into practice suggestions from those meetings and from a recent Noel-Levitz campus study.
This fall, her office is hiring Crow and Northern Cheyenne students to be liaisons with tribal colleges and to connect MSU Billings students to financial and academic help.
A Hispanic student has been hired to reach out to the Hispanic community.
Charette also is making direct contact with current and prospective American Indian students by phone, email, Facebook and other social media, checking to see if there is anything they need.
“We try to hit it from all sides,” she said. “You have to keep up with them (electronically) or they leave you in the dust.”
Her office also organized welcoming events at the beginning of the semester for Native American students and other minority students.
To reduce the mystery about who to go to help with a problem, Charette has scheduled “Soup Socials” where university staff members talk with students over lunch.
MSU Billings long has had an American Indian outreach office.
Last year it added a diversity center with an expanded staff to help Hispanic, African-American and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
Another important role Charette’s office plays is as an informal gathering place for students. Located just off the main floor of the Liberal Arts building, her office has a reception area with comfortable chairs, a small refrigerator and a microwave. Students — particularly commuter students — come in to eat their lunch or to talk to other Native American and minority students.
“It’s a place to relax. To get away from the stress of being the only person of color in a class of 50 students,” Charette said. “We offer this as an oasis.”