Meeting our nation’s completion goals requires bold action. That is why the Montana University System has been a long-time Complete College America Alliance member. Montana was an early adopter of performance funding and has spread corequisite support statewide. Our campuses have also championed 15 to Finish efforts and led the way in innovative approaches to structured schedules. These and other completion efforts have responded to the growing need to ensure that more Montanans have a degree or credential to create a future ready workforce and so that our state can better support economically vibrant, civically-engaged, and innovative communities.

Those initiatives are showing signs of success, but we need to do more. What’s more, the equity gaps in achievement—low-income students are more likely to stop out and significantly more likely to stop out with debt—is an urgent call to action. And we need to take action in a way that demonstrates that holistic student supports, which we know increase retention and completion, are not only in the best interest of students, but are also the right choice for cash-strapped institutions and taxpayers.

That’s why the Montana University System has launched Montana Project 10, a system-wide pilot project aimed at increasing retention and completion for low-income students. The pilot—modeled after national efforts like CUNY ASAP and Ohio SAIL as well as local models like Montana State University’s Hilleman Scholars program—integrates ten strategies from three broad approaches to student success: financial support, academic momentum, and purpose and belonging. Montana Project 10 aims to increase retention and completion by 10 percent among the pilot’s 350-student cohort who will enroll in fall 2020. Importantly, we intend to do so in a way that rigorously measures our impact and costs Montana’s taxpayers fewer dollars per degree than current practice.

The three institutions participating in Montana Project 10 –  the University of Montana-Missoula, Montana State University-Billings, and Helena College – as part of CCA’s completion agenda, have completed focused work enrolling students in 15 credits per semester, meeting developmental education needs through corequisite support, and helping students to develop a strong sense of purpose in their educational paths. Project 10 is an extension and evolution of that work to see whether a well-implemented, rigorously-evaluated, holistic set of student success reforms that build on CCA’s best practices can substantially improve the success of our most underserved students.

As Montana develops and implements Montana Project 10, we will do so in a way that responds to the particular needs of the largely rural students who attend our institutions. The Montana University System and our students face challenges unique to rural- and frontier-serving systems and institutions. Despite having a robust and thriving public higher education system, our state, like many others in the west, is largely an education desert. Students in education deserts experience, among other barriers, limitations to access both geographically and in terms of their preparedness due to teacher shortages; place-bound students have significantly restricted options; and the state must define and actualize the value of public higher education in spaces where the majority of residents do not have college degrees and where economic opportunity is more limited than in urban areas.

As the Montana University System builds, rigorously evaluates, learns from our successes and mistakes, and scales across the state, we see enormous opportunity for Montana Project 10’s participating students, our system’s campuses, and our state’s completion efforts. But, we also think that Montana Project 10 presents an opportunity for our state to link with other systems and institutions in rural and frontier states to change the game for our nation’s rural students and communities.

This blog is the first in a series that will follow the implementation of Montana Project 10. 

Register for the Montana Project 10 team’s upcoming webinar August 28 at 3pm EST.