Montana State University

MSU’s efforts to keep students in school and help them graduate featured in magazine  

September 13, 2016 -- By Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

A recent issue of Business Officer magazine included an editorial by MSU President Waded Cruzado about how the university’s efforts to increase the number of students who stay in school and graduate are putting MSU on firm financial footing. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University’s efforts at keeping students in school and helping them graduate were highlighted in the July-August issue of Business Officer, a well-respected publication on higher education financial management.

The magazine’s editors invited MSU President Waded Cruzado to pen an editorial on how the university’s efforts to increase the number of students who stay in school and graduate are putting the university on firm financial footing.

“By creating a culture that focuses on assisting our students staying in school, graduating, and managing their debt, Montana State University is seeing its own economic foundation become stronger,” Cruzado wrote. “Importantly for the future, as a land-grant university, this is how we remain committed to a stronger democracy based on higher education for all.”

Since arriving at MSU six years ago, Cruzado has made increasing the number of students who stay in school and graduate a priority for the university, which has seen its efforts pay off in recent years and now has the highest freshman-to-sophomore retention rates and graduation rates among public universities and colleges in Montana.

Cruzado’s editorial focused on two programs of the university: its so-called Freshman 15 campaign and efforts to carefully monitor students’ financial well-being.

The Freshman 15 campaign has been largely based on educating students and their families that there is no additional tuition cost for any credits above the first 12 credits each semester. This means students pay the same tuition for 15, 18 or 21 credits as they pay for the basic 12 credits. For Montana residents, the maximum tuition cost per semester at MSU is $2,665 regardless of how many more credits a student takes after the first 12.

MSU administrators frequently refer to the “Freshman 15” campaign -- a play on words for the common phrase describing the 15 pounds students often feel they gain when they first come to college -- as encouraging students to add academic weight instead. And while marketed heavily to freshman, the benefits are available to all students.   

“The Freshman 15 campaign dramatically increased the percentage of freshmen taking 15 credits or more: from 50 percent in 2011 to 64 percent in fall 2015,” Cruzado wrote. “The message has also gotten through to the rest of undergraduates: In 2011, 46 percent of all undergraduates took 15 or more credits, increasing to 55 percent by fall 2015.”

Importantly, during the same period, MSU’s retention and graduation rates also increased. The retention rate of first-time, full-time freshmen rose from 74 percent to 77 percent, Cruzado wrote, and the six-year graduation rate has moved from 48.9 to 52.4 percent.

For its efforts to improve retention and degree completion rates, MSU was recently named one of five national finalists for the 2016 Project Degree Completion Award, which recognizes institutions that employ innovative approaches to help more students stay in school and complete their degrees.

The award is part of Project Degree Completion, a joint initiative that the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, or APLU, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities developed.

The Business Officer editorial also detailed the university’s “Know Your Debt” letter, which monitors the financial well-being of MSU students.

“The federal government requires that students be informed regularly about the outstanding balance on their loans when they leave school, but not while enrolled,” Cruzado wrote. “Beginning in 2013, Montana State started sending letters to students with higher than average debt or with debt levels that will be difficult to pay back, given average salary levels among graduates in their particular major program.”

Cruzado noted that research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education found that students receiving the Know Your Debt letter took more credits, reduced their debt loads by about one-third and had higher grade point averages in the subsequent semester.

MSU also received national attention on Bloomberg Business News in Oct. 2015 for its Know Your Debt efforts.

One of the university’s most recent efforts to help students stay in school and succeed is its new Hilleman Scholars Program. Launched this summer, the enrichment program provides financial and academic support to help approximately 50 high school graduates from Montana to achieve academically and actively contribute to their communities. The scholars, all selected for academic, leadership and career potential, were brought to MSU a month early for a Summer Success Academy. The intensive program is designed to boost college-level math, writing and critical thinking skills and to equip students with effective learning strategies for the coming academic year. While this scholarship provides financial assistance, it is not a full ride or a free ride. To be accepted as a Hilleman Scholar, students must commit to work at their education beyond ordinary expectations and help future scholars that come after them.

“Our campus-wide commitment to increasing our focus on student retention and graduation is delivering dividends—both to our students and to the university,” Cruzado wrote. “While it is difficult to quantify the effect such publicity has on enrollment, anecdotal evidence indicates that our focus on being a land-grant university committed to student success, financial well-being and prosperity are becoming factors in enrollment decisions of prospective students and their families.”

Contact: Tracy Ellig, executive director, University Communications, (406) 994-5607 or

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