Recent articles complain that Montana’s brightest students leave Montana to pursue higher education and those who attend our universities at taxpayers’ expense leave to find jobs. Both of these assertions are best viewed by analyzing the facts.
In the class of 2010, four Montana students earned perfect scores on the ACT. Two of those students are entering the Montana University System, taking advantage of the Montana University System Honors Scholarships. The 201 students who accepted honor scholarships for 2010-2011 had an average ACT score of 31 and 87 percent earned high school GPAs of 3.9 and above. This scholarship is a four-year renewable tuition waiver for use at any of Montana’s University System campuses. Recent changes in the criteria for earning these scholarships have put more emphasis on rigorous high school preparation and test scores. As a result, they are more competitive and prized by our top-performing students.
The 2010 ACT tests were taken by 6,222 students, about 58 percent of Montana's 2010 high school graduates. That was an increase of 6 percent since last year, indicating that more Montana students plan to go to college. More students send their scores to Montana State University Bozeman, University of Montana Missoula, MSU Billings, and Montana Tech than to any out-of-state college. In fact, 1,817 more students list UM Missoula and MSU Bozeman as their first choice than the most-selected out of state campus, the University of Washington.
While the rest of the country frets over remediation rates, the preparation levels of Montana’s recent high school graduates have been improving. Over the past ten years, the University System has worked with hundreds of high school teachers to improve readiness for college English, resulting in a decline in remediation rates in college composition of 26 percent between 2005 and 2009.
What about after graduation? Approximately 70 percent of Montanans graduating from an MUS campus are employed in the state within one year. Such data, developed in conjunction with the Montana Department of Labor, is readily accessible on the MUS website. According to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (2007), Montana is a net importer of young educated adults, those 22 to 39 year olds who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Although state support for higher education has not kept pace with inflation and has dwindled from 75 percent to only 40 percent of its cost over the past 20 years, the Montana University System has made great strides in attracting students. Our honors colleges, scholarships and admissions policies encourage Montana’s highest-achieving students. In addition, our programs reach out to high schools and our campuses provide support to all students in their academic endeavors.
Montana’s economy depends on increasing the educational attainment level of all its citizens. The MUS is realizing that goal by attracting academically gifted students and preparing Montana’s work force.
Sheila Stearns is Montana commissioner of higher education.