Crash course 

UM fights the "failure factory" label

College students still have months to beef up this semester's grades, but the University of Montana recently received an "F" for failing to crank out college graduates.

click to enlarge A recent report labeled the University of Montana a “failure factory” for dismal graduation rates. The state says only 40 percent of UM students earn a degree within six years. - PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY
  • Photo by Anne Medley
  • A recent report labeled the University of Montana a “failure factory” for dismal graduation rates. The state says only 40 percent of UM students earn a degree within six years.

State reports show the school has a 28 percent freshman dropout rate, and the majority of students signing on for classes leave without a degree. Among 15 Western states, 49 percent of students who enrolled in public universities donned a gown and tassel within six years. Across Montana, about 41 percent walked to "Pomp and Circumstance." UM specifically graduated about 4o percent between 2002 and 2008.

"You can see we don't compare so swell," admits Montana Board of Regents Associate Commissioner Tyler Trevor.

UM's troubles follow a trend that shows other wealthy nations are fast outpacing the United States in producing college graduates. As the country looks to increase global competitiveness, critics are challenging educators, politicians and policy makers with finding ways to produce a better-educated populace. The issue struck the Missoula campus when New York Times columnist David Leonhardt cited research by Mark Schneider, an economist who coined the term "failure factory," and a new book titled Crossing the Finish Line for a column that specifically called out UM as a poster child for underachieving institutions.

UM President George Dennison acknowledges a problem exists with retaining students, but says his school is not alone.

"You can criticize all you want to, but the average rate is somewhere in the mid- to high-40s across the country," says Dennison in a recent interview with the Independent.

He's right. A key predictor of graduation rates is admission requirements, and UM falls just below the average of other "moderately selective" universities nationwide. Moderately selective schools graduate about 46 percent overall, according to the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. Montana State University in Bozeman—with the same admission requirements as UM—graduates 48 percent of its freshman enrollees within six years, or 8 percent more than UM.

"There simply is no question from a historical point of view that what made this country survive and thrive was its commitment to education," Dennison says. "That's declined in the last few years. That's why we've fallen. We've got to revive that and get people to believe again."

With that in mind, UM announced a campaign last year to overcome its freshman dropout rate and push more undergrads through the system. Specifically, Vice President of Administration and Finance Robert Duringer says the university is devoting $870,000 toward enhancing academic support with early intervention and tutoring.

But that investment may not outweigh larger budget problems at UM. Disability Services, which serves students with learning challenges, is running short-staffed, and administrators campus-wide are faced with dwindling resources. Couple that with a 19.6 percent jump in resident tuition between 2005 and 2010 as statewide income continued to lag behind the rest of the nation, and it's clear staying in school isn't easy.

"We are very near the bottom in the United States of disposable income, so we have a very large number of kids who can't complete because they don't have the money for it," Duringer explains. And as undergrads struggle to cough up tuition, state government contributes less money per capita for higher education—approximately 65 percent of tuition per student—than any other state.

"We invest the least of all 50 states," Duringer says.

Experts point out that money only makes up part of the dropout problem. Cultural priorities and expectations, pre-college academic preparation and in-school support all play a part in whether or not a student earns his or her degree.

"To move a graduation rate a percent or two it takes a lot," Trevor says.

That's why Dennison, who knows not to count on a financial windfall, plans on addressing the problem multiple different ways. For instance, he says a big piece of the equation will be aligning UM's Partnering for Student Success program with the Missoula Public School District to better prepare kids for college.

Creative solutions may be UM's only shot at improving the numbers. Currently, 35 percent of Montanans and 39 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 have an associate's degree or higher. By comparison, 55 percent of Canadians in the same demographic hold a degree.

That gulf prompted President Barack Obama to issue a promise earlier this year that he would help make the United States the most educated nation in the world again. To fulfill that goal, the Obama administration estimates the country must produce 16 million more graduates above the 48 million currently projected by 2020. Montana's share of that is 25,000 degrees above estimates.

"We used to be first, some 30 years ago," says Dennison. "Now we're in the second tier and probably going to fall to the third tier, unless we do something about it. I think this is one of the great national challenges of our time. We simply have to come up to it."

Obama has pledged billions above existing budgets toward higher education and Congress is currently mulling over legislation aimed at luring students to college at a greater rate. No matter what the outcome at the federal level, Dennison says the challenge is clear and failure, pardon the pun, isn't an option.

"We can't afford not to be competitive," he says. "That's what this is all about."

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