Classes begin next week on Montana's college campuses, but less than half of the brightest students coming out of Montana's high schools last spring will be sitting in those classrooms.
For those top-tier high school graduates who do stay in Montana, a majority go to Montana State University.
"Of course, we want Montana to get more than its fair share of its best and brightest students," said Sheila Stearns, Montana commissioner of higher education. "We also recognize that students come in all stripes and flavors. They often want to try different places and we are in favor for whatever is the best fit for these students."
Montana's public universities and colleges capture around 38 percent of the state's graduating high school students who decide to seek college degrees. A vast majority take the ACT to gain admittance.
An analysis of ACT scores shows that in 2009, 5,960 Montana high school seniors took the standardized exam. Six percent, or 365 students, earned a cumulative score of 30 or higher. (A perfect score is 36.)
Montana's public colleges and universities attract less than half of those top-tier students. Of those who do decide Montana is a good fit, 60 percent go to Montana State University and 24 percent attend the University of Montana.
In fact, last year, Montana had four high school students earn perfect scores on the ACT. Two of them enrolled at MSU this fall.
Research shows that the high-schoolers who receive high scores on standardized tests also generally do well in math and science. These students are often drawn to fields like engineering, technology and science, which are areas that in Montana are considered strong academic programs at MSU. University officials at both schools agree that it boils down to the programs offered by the two flagship campuses.
"Montana State University's strong engineering presence over the decades has left many students to conclude that they may have a stronger academic undergraduate experience there," Stearns said. "I would say that's not factual, but it's an impression. It's a matter of picking the right major and you'll have an outstanding experience no matter where you go."
Standardized tests, however, are not the only measurement of Montana's best and brightest students, said James McKusick, dean of UM's Davidson Honors College. Those tests don't measure artistic flair. Some of UM's top students excel in dance, art and creative writing, he said.
"They may or may not fare well on the ACT, but we sure want them at the University of Montana," McKusick said.
And even though Montana loses more than half of its brightest high school graduates to out-of-state universities and colleges, it also gains other state's brightest students. The Davidson Honors College has a higher percentage of out-of-state students in its program than does the university as a whole, McKusick said.
Still, UM's 2010 presidential scholarships - which go to the brightest honors students at the university regardless of geographic location - went to 18 Montana students and six from other states.
Montana has made a push to attract more of the state's top students.
Eight years ago, the Montana Board of Regents beefed up its statewide scholarship program. The Montana University System honors scholarships are offered annually to around 250 Montana high school students. They are based on a combination of class rank and standardized test scores.
The benchmarks for the scholarships are high - unless a student earns a 4.0 grade point average in high school and scores higher than a 27 on the ACT, it is unlikely students will receive the four-year scholarship, which covers all of a student's tuition and fees.
Around 200 incoming freshman chose to take advantage of this scholarship opportunity. This year, 122 of those students picked MSU and 57 students are attending UM.
Both UM and MSU try to recruit these top students. That doesn't mean attending high school science fairs and tapping kids on the shoulder. But there is a concerted effort to get their message out about what the university offers.
"MSU has a reputation of providing students opportunities to conduct hands-on research with our top professors and in our best laboratories," said Tracy Ellig, MSU spokesperson. "We are consciously promoting hands-on research for undergraduates."
While Montana would love for more of its top high-schoolers to stay in state, putting all of their efforts into this small fraction of students goes against the university system's mission. They'll leave that to the Ivy League schools.
Rather, Montana's universities and colleges want to attract a diverse student body, Stearns said. That means students from all parts of the state, who excel in music, athletics and academics, and even students who received poor grades in high school but who have a desire to go to college.
The Montana University System's mission is as much about serving students as it is serving Montana communities and the economy, she said.
"It is important for our state university system to have a comprehensive approach," she said.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at email@example.com.