One of the big questions college students face is whether they can even afford to stay enrolled from one semester to the next.
"I think it's astounding that for many students, it can be $200 or $400 or $600 that will keep them at the University of Montana," said Dean Brock Tessman.
Tessman, head of the Davidson Honors College, said "micro-grant" programs have been emerging that help students who need assistance to stay enrolled. A number of isolated efforts are taking place on campus, and he believes they are making a difference.
Tessman's remarks came Wednesday at a meeting of the UM president's cabinet with deans. UM officials talked about the growing importance of retaining students and ensuring they graduate — not simply boosting enrollment numbers.
Provost Beverly Edmond said she believes freshman enrollment is going to level out as planned. The number of incoming freshman increased 2 percent from last fall to this fall. The bump translates to just 20 students, but it's significant compared to the previous drops of 200 freshman, according to UM.
At the meeting, Edmond said UM has the opportunity to establish itself as the premier institution in the state of Montana and nationally for student success because of efforts already in place as pilots or ongoing programs.
"Since I arrived, I've been talking about expanding our conversation in the context of enrollment management beyond the very important issue the university faces with recruitment to the other components of enrollment management, which are retention, persistence and completion," Edmond said.
Brian French, executive director of the Office for Student Success, said Complete College America is offering the Montana University System guidance in how to be responsive to students and make more data-driven decisions. Complete College America is a national nonprofit that aims to increase the number of Americans with college degrees or certificates.
One initiative UM has signed onto is a push to get students to take 15 credits each semester, French said. UM also is focused on advising, including an effort to direct only those students who need college algebra to take it; college algebra is a deterrent for many students to stay enrolled, but it also isn't required for all degrees.
"We've made great strides in that area, and we've actually been recognized as one of the states that's furthest along," French said.
Braden Fitzgerald, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana, said it's key to pass on the message about taking 15 credits each semester to high schools. There, he said, the prevalent culture is to tell students it's fine to take five or six years to finish college.
"It's important to stress this program to high school guidance counselors," Fitzgerald said.
Higher education officials are stressing the importance of staying on track with 15 credits not only to make sure students graduate, but to make college more affordable. In Montana, the cost of an extra year of college, including living expenses, can be some $20,000 at a flagship.
A couple of cabinet members said it's important to have parallel strategies, though. Some single parents and nontraditional students may not be able to take 15 credits every semester.
"We're committed to their success as well," Dean Reed Humphrey said.
President Sheila Stearns agreed and said places that have moved the dial on helping students get through college by encouraging more credits aren't seeing other students fall by the wayside.
"They don't leave behind the other 40 percent," Stearns said.
And Provost Edmond said multiple strategies need to be in place on a campus: "This is not a one-size-fits-all. It's a smorgasbord of activities."
At the meeting, cabinet members also discussed the project to set program priorities. Dean Chris Comer said some students have mistakenly believed the project will result in their inability to complete degrees, which he stressed is not the case.
"Students will be able to finish no matter what," Comer said.
He also said students need to hear that message: "We have to address those rumors. We can't just let them float," Comer said.
A task force on priorities is evaluating some 400 units at UM, academic and administrative. Next week, it's slated to identify how units are prioritized on the spectrum of ones set for growth versus "disinvestment" in preparation for recommendations to the president.
In other business:
- Dean Stephen Kalm invited people to attend a performance called “Meredith Monk – A Celebration Service.” Kalm described Monk as a creative genius. The "wordless" dance and vocal performance is scheduled for 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 3 and 4, at University Congregational Church, 405 University Ave. in Missoula. Tickets cost $15 for general admission and $12 for students and seniors.
- Dean Larry Abramson announced DiverseU, a forum Nov. 1 and 2 billed as a way to "explore the complexities of human experience, promote understanding, and create community through the practice of civil discourse." The sessions are interactive and he encouraged attendance and questions.