HELENA — Montana’s improved college graduation rates are drawing national attention.

The U.S. Department of Education released statistics Thursday that showed Montana increased its number of students graduating from college by 3.2 percentage points from 2009 to 2010 or double the rate of any other state.

The national average was one-half of one percentage point. Montana’s college graduation rate rose to 40.3 percent in 2010 from 37.1 percent in 2009.

Last month, a report by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization covering education, said Montana registered the biggest improvement of any state in raising the percentage of 25- to 64-year-olds graduating from college by 6 percent over the past three years. The article said the rest of the country “barely edged up on this measure by 1 percent,” while 15 states lost ground.

“To get a report card like this should be fulfilling and a sense of pride for all Montana,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Thursday.

He said the improved graduation rates are the result of a number of efforts the state has undertaken under his leadership.

“We have focused on college graduation and done it in a very systematic way the last seven years,” he said.

Agreeing was Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian.

“At the bottom of all this, we’re really about trying to improve the overall attainment rate for Montana and its citizens in higher education,” Christian said.

“That’s certainly been the focus of the board, a focus of (former) Commissioner (Sheila) Stearns, a focus of mine and of all those who have served on the board.

“We’re glad to see those improvements get recognized by national standards. It’s a great thing for us. Ultimately that helps our economy and that helps the individuals that participate.”

Schweitzer cited the proposal, worked out with the state Board of Regents and Legislature, to provide the university system with sufficient money to freeze tuition for two years for Montana students attending four-year state colleges and universities and for four years for Montanans enrolled in two–year colleges.

From his early days as governor, Schweitzer said he told the state Board of Regents that he wanted higher education to be more accessible, affordable, relevant and transferable.

“We stayed with it,” he said. “With the common course numbering, students are likely to study at Montana State University Billings for a year and a half, move to Great Falls (to attend the two-year college) and finish at the university in Missoula.”

Previously, he said, a student who transferred might lose most credits for the first two years when the universities refused to accept the courses.

“We’ve worked on that, and we’ve made great progress,” he said.

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Schweitzer said he also pushed hard for more online courses, something the system and colleges and universities initially resisted but now are promoting.

“We heard every excuse in the book,” he said. “We stayed on it like smell on a skunk. They’re doing a much better job.”

Now someone can be working and living in Miles City, Scobey or Havre and take classes online from Montana State University or the University of Montana, he said.

Schweitzer also touted the dual enrollment program that allows high school students to take online college courses and receive both high school and college credits

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“There’s a lot of kids that came from families like mine,” he said.

“Their parents didn’t graduate from college, or in my case, didn’t graduate from high school. You don’t have the confidence that you are cut

out for college.”

But successfully completing these dual credit courses online can boost high school students’ confidence.

“Then you start looking in the mirror and seeing a college graduate for the first time in your families,” he said.

Schweitzer said he also believes the science and math initiative launched by his wife, Nancy, with him assisting, has really helped.

“We know how important it is to excel in science and math,” he said. “We’ve really pushed STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.”

Jobs in these curriculum areas are readily available here, he said.

He also pointed to the governor’s Best and Brightest Scholarship program that he launched.

It provides scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 a year, subject to renewal, for Montana students to attend state college and universities and American Indian colleges in the state.

Since its creation in 2005, 8,558 scholarships have been granted through the program.

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