Programs in wind technology, petroleum engineering and leadership studies could be among ways to improve enrollment and retention at Montana State University Billings, a national expert said here last week.
More attention also should be paid to the growing Native American population and to transfer students as colleges and universities shift from professor-centered to student-centered practices, said John N. Gardner, founder of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education in Brevard, N.C.
Gardner conducted a two-day workshop for MSU Billings faculty and staff called “Promoting Meaningful Learning Relationships Inside and Outside the Classroom.” The workshop was part of efforts at the university to improve student retention, which lags behind comparable institutions elsewhere in the region.
MSU Billings set a goal in February of raising retention rates 2 percentage points a year in each of the next five years. Chancellor Mark Nook said in February that one-year retention rates of entering freshmen have been around 55 percent in recent years, while rates at Black Hills State University in South Dakota, University of Montana Western and Bemidji State University in Minnesota have been around 65 percent.
According to the College Factual website, 81 percent of colleges have better freshmen retention than MSU Billings, and 88 percent have better six-year graduation rates.
The university was awarded $760,000 in state funds in December to spend by June 30 on retention efforts. Since university funding is based in part on enrollment, retention and enrollment have direct impacts on financing.
MSU Billings had to cut $4.4 million in 2014 because of declining enrollment. No additional cuts were required last year, a university news release said, despite a 12 percent decrease in the size of the freshmen class in fall 2015. Classes for fall 2016 begin Sept. 7.
As part of retention efforts, MSU Billings appointed a Student Success Committee, which released a plan to improve retention last fall. Its efforts included an invitation to Gardner, the author of “The Undergraduate Experience” and a pioneer in retention and freshmen experiences. He said he was drawn to the field because of his own miserable experience getting through college as a beginning freshman.
Higher education was originally designed primarily for the benefit and convenience of professors, Gardner said, just as healthcare was designed for the benefit of doctors. But just as doctors have lost autonomy because of insurance and federal requirements, professors are being forced to shift the focus more toward students.
Students are “marketed to, catered to, courted, cultivated and perhaps even manipulated,” he said. At the same time as colleges have moved away from “in loco parentis” practices of the past, they are increasingly being held accountable to publicly report graduation rates, starting salaries for graduates, crimes and other data.
Professors must learn to value the students they actually have, not the ones they used to have or wish they had, he said.
In a summary of his observations after two days with administrators, faculty, staff and students, Gardner offered a series of impressions. Among them:
♦ The main campus and City College have an “unfinished agenda” that fails to take advantage of potential synergy between the two. Throughout the two days, faculty members observed that they rarely had contact with counterparts at the other campus.
♦ The university’s location is an advantage in several ways: It offers a diverse urban environment, which tends to help retain male students; it is close enough to California to attract excess students from there; and it is in a “franchise” as part of the Montana State University system.
♦ The college has a 90-year history and what appears to be a strong tradition of academic freedom.
♦ MSU Billings should make an effort to fill empty dormitory beds because students who live on campus are more likely to stay in school.
♦ He heard little mention over the two days of transfer students, who can help offset retention losses, or of Native Americans, the fastest-growing segment of Montana’s population. Indians make up 6 percent of the state’s population, 6 percent of its college enrollment and 12 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th grade, he said.
♦ Rituals help build a sense of community and loyalty in higher education. If universities don’t offer students rituals, as Texas A&M University does, for example, students will create rituals of their own.
♦ Adding popular programs such as mediation, conflict management and leadership studies could boost enrollment, he said. Career-boosting programs in fields such as wind technology and petroleum engineering also could help.
Gardner said that MSU Billings needs a comprehensive plan for student success and a policy audit, and that it should consider making some voluntary courses mandatory, such as a two-credit freshmen seminar. Freshmen often don’t know what they need or want, he said, and need direction. That includes teaching them to love the college they attend, he said.
In addition to Gardner’s four talks over two days, faculty and staff attended a series of discussions on such matters as relationships between faculty, staff and students; orientation and the first-year experience for students; and so-called Gateway to Completion courses and principles.
A common theme in discussions was the need for faculty and staff to work more closely together. Many acknowledged that they really weren’t aware of first-year seminars and orientation programs, and they stressed the need to get together more often.
Some said that, setting aside any knowledge acquired during the two-day session, just the opportunity to get to know one another better had made the workshop worthwhile.
Some also pointed to first-year activities at Rocky Mountain College, which overhauled its freshmen experience program this year. Activities in the pass-fail, one-credit course are now coordinated through freshmen composition classes.
Freshmen students are required to complete a variety of community service and on-campus activities in order to receive credit for the course.