By JACK SEEGER and ADAM SCHREUDER/Montana State News

If graduating in a timely manner is high on your list of priorities, Montana State University may not be the ideal choice for higher education. Over the last couple of years, MSU’s reputation has received both acclaim and criticism for graduation rates. Although increasing undergraduate enrollment has continued to set records year after year, it is not the only record being broken.

According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, MSU’s 2014-2015 four-year graduation rate was 23.9 percent. In 2014, the number of freshmen who graduated in six years was not much better, at just under half (49.6 percent). This is cause for some concern, since that was the second-highest ratio since 2000.

Parents of college-bound freshmen are getting acquainted with the frenzy of helping their children decide on which school to attend, and it is likely that MSU’s abysmal four-year graduation rate will prove to be an intimidating statistic—especially for those facing out-of-state tuition fees. According to the Wall Street Journal, nearly 59 percent of college students earn their degree within four years in the United States, which is more than double the rate of MSU.

As the largest accredited public or private university in the state of Montana, it is important to analyze why a large majority of students are not earning their degrees. Perhaps with this understanding, the reasoning behind high dropout rates will become clearer, as well as suggest what steps the university could take in order to address this issue.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest contributing factors to why many individuals drop out of college is financial turmoil. As per a Georgetown University study, students who come from wealthy backgrounds are three times more likely to complete school compared to those from lower-income families.

At Montana State University this is also the case, although on a notably lower scale. The university’s offices of planning and analysis database reveals that those who qualify for the federal Pell grant have lower rates of graduation relative to their economically superior counterparts. Furthermore, those who attend school and are not as financially stable tend to be from small, rural towns, single-parent households, or ethnic/ racial minorities – further compounding the issue.

Chris Kearns, the vice president of student success at MSU, says that money is just one of three the main factors behind why undergraduates leave college. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, he claims that lack of academic preparation and finding the right major are also key components; half of all MSU students switch majors while in school.

For the most part, the university has begun to combat the issue of low retention face-on. Associate Provost David Singel claims that it “is an all-hands-on-deck problem” and that MSU is mining data on its students to figure out what works. Since MSU President Waded Cruzado took the reigns in 2010, MSU has rolled a broad spectrum of initiatives to increase graduation rates. In addition to tutoring programs such as Smarty Cats and the Adam Yarnell Center for Student Success, the university created the Veterans Center and the Native American Center to provide students from specific backgrounds the help and tools that they need to prosper.

President Cruzado contends that in other states one of the main reasons that undergraduates drop out is rising costs, which she has pledged to prevent in her time at Montana State University.  In the last decade, Montana has only increased tuition twice.

On the other hand, some argue that the school could be doing more to improve graduation rates; most notably, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s editorial board argued for implementing more rigid admissions standards in order to save “scandalous amounts of wasted time and money, on part of students, their families, and the state taxpayers who support public institutions.”

All in all, it would appear that Cruzado’s efforts have had an effect thus far. According to the Montana State University Office of Planning and Analysis, Montana State University’s six-year graduation rate has risen by an average of 7.5 percent since she became president. Even the four-year ratio has increased, nearly twice as what it was in 2011. Based on these findings, however, it seems that MSU is still has room for improvement if it strives to reach its goal of for a 65 percent graduation rate by 2019.

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