Montana State University

MSU to pilot program helping first-generation students stay in school

July 20, 2015 -- MSU News Service

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Montana State University will pilot a new program this fall aimed at increasing the number of first-generation college students staying in school and graduating. 

Funded by a $1.1 million U.S. Department of Education TRIO grant, the Student Support Services, or SSS, program will run for five years and serve a total of 140 MSU students over that time. The program will be the latest of more than 50 initiatives MSU has implemented in recent years to help students stay in school and earn degrees.

“Our aim is the make the SSS program the leading edge on how we work with all students who are the first in their families to attend college. This will be an incubator for practices that we can use for other students,” said Chris Kearns, MSU vice president for student success in the Division of Student Success.

Roughly 20 percent of MSU undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college.

During the 2013 and 2015 Montana legislative sessions, the Montana University System committed to allocate a portion of its state appropriation to campuses based on the progress each made in increasing the number of students who stay in school and graduate. In 2014, MSU made the greatest gains of any campus in the state and invested all the $2.3 million it received into more retention and graduation efforts.

“We heard the message from our elected officials in Helena and from parents and families throughout Montana to do more to help students stay in school and graduate, and we are taking that very seriously,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “This grant from the U.S. Department of Education is a wonderful example of how the wishes of the Montana Legislature and governor’s office can be complemented with federal funding.”

The SSS program will provide 140 students with tutoring, a career coach, financial literacy training, mentoring, study skills training and many other support services offered through the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success. In addition to first-generation students, the program will also serve low-income students and students with disabilities.  

“What’s new about this program is we are not opening an office and hoping students show up and use the services,” Kearns said. “Each student will be expected to have a plan and a schedule for using these many support services, and they will have an adviser who will make sure they are participating. We will be doing things with them, not for them.”

MSU was awarded the grant after submitting a competitive grant application to the TRIO program within the U.S. Department of Education. Only 79 of the 906 funded proposals were new grant awards like MSU’s. Kearns said Carina Beck, director of the Allen Yarnell Center for Student Success, helped shepherd the grant through the process. Shelly Hogan, director of the MSU’s McNair Scholars Program, also played an important role in the grant application.

Funding for the TRIO program nationally has been championed by a bipartisan group of U.S. congressmen and congresswomen, known as the TRIO Caucus, which includes U.S. Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

“TRIO has given hard-working students the opportunity to attend college and be among the first ones in their family to graduate.  As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee I proudly support TRIO so more students can get their degree, accomplish their goals and increase their shot at success,” Tester said.

Chris Kearns, MSU vice president for student success, 406-994-2828 or