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.

To further challenge our state’s workforce, Montana’s high school graduation numbers are expected to remain fairly flat for the next 10 years due to low birth rates over the past two decades.

At the same time, Montana’s economy is strong with low unemployment and projected grow in most sectors with health care being the fastest. Postsecondary education — a certificate, degree or an apprenticeship — is expected for the jobs which need to be filled in our state.

In 2013, Gov. Steve Bullock and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian announced 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.

If Montana high school graduates enroll and graduate from one of our state’s colleges, we dramatically increase the likelihood they will go to work in Montana.

  • 78 percent of resident graduates from 4-year degree programs are employed in Montana after leaving college
  • 86 percent of resident graduates from 2-year degree programs are employed in Montana after leaving college

Only 6 out of 10 Montana high school graduates go on to college and roughly 4 out of 10 enroll in a public Montana institution. Complete College Montana’s focus has been centered around ensuring those students who choose a college within the Montana University System are successful, complete on-time, and accumulate less student debt.

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.

  • Creation of math pathways ensuring that students were receiving the most appropriate math for their degree path. 
  • 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 10 percent chance of ever completing a degree. 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 co-requisite sections outperformed those who were deemed college ready. This concept has also been piloted with writing courses and is in the process of being scaled throughout the entire Montana University System.

On Oct. 25, 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 as well as 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 its president, Tom Sugar spoke at the event.

All of the MUS institutions have committed to implementing and scaling the game-changing, student-success strategies that CCA has recommended. Montana already implemented math pathways and co-requisite remediation. Work is under way on 15 to finish, guided pathways, and structured schedules. The Montana University System will be recognized in New Orleans at the national Complete College America Summit as the first state system in the nation to have every institution commit to these important student success strategies. Montana has also been selected by CCA along with West Virginia, Hawaii, and City University of New York to receive support from CCA to scale these momentum pathways.

John E. Cech, PhD, is MUS deputy commissioner of higher education.