Montana State University Billings

Holistic Approach to Retention and Graduation Rates for Improved Student Success

This university is building up its retention and graduation rates with intentional strategies that address the unique needs of specific student populations, implement supports to improve student success outcomes, and foster a sense of belonging.

Montana State University Billings (MSUB) Chancellor Stefani Hicswa’s poignant insight about students who do not complete their academic journey is that the most expensive degree is the one not completed. These students’ professional and intellectual aspirations are hampered because they leave with debt, lost time, lost income while pursuing a degree, and no degree. Hicswa believes institutions of higher education have a moral obligation to ensure these students complete their degree, thus empowering them to reap all the benefits associated with a college degree (e.g., enhanced social mobility, improved physical and mental health, greater civic engagement, increased lifespan, etc.). Improved student outcomes also bring tangible benefits to MSUB, as the institution’s performance-based funding fluctuates based on retention and graduation rates.

Hicswa prioritized increasing both rates when she created a cross-divisional Retention and Graduation Council to develop MSUB’s 2022–2027 Retention and Graduation Plan with self-imposed five-year and annual targets. For five-year targets, the fall-to-spring semester retention rate for all new students (freshmen, and transfer, full-time, and part-time students pursuing any undergraduate degree plan: certificate, associate, bachelor) was set at 90% and the fall-to-fall retention rate at 70%. For graduation rates, the metric chosen was 150% graduation rate for new, full-time students starting in a fall semester. This rate signifies the percentage of students who complete a degree or certificate in 150% of the time normally intended for completing a program. The five-year 150% graduation rate targets are 55% for freshmen and 70% for transfer students.

The Retention and Graduation Plan’s intentional and comprehensive strategy is based on a holistic student success approach with the student as a whole individual at its center. The plan was created based on the foundational understanding that MSUB serves diverse student populations that face both academic and non-academic challenges, and that the strategies implemented must be appropriately tailored to the needs of all students. For example, 40% are Pell-eligible, 40% are first-generation college students, 20% are adult learners, 10% identify as Native American, 5% are military-affiliated, 4% are international, etc. The plan, which addresses the full spectrum of the support structures the students need, is based on these 10 initiatives:

  1. Establish strategic and systematized data-informed communication interventions.
  2. Improve visibility and marketing of student support programs.
  3. Develop a holistic and shared academic advising model.
  4. Mitigate barriers for matriculation, registration, and course scheduling.
  5. Implement high-impact student success strategies in the classroom.
  6. Implement strategies to improve degree completion.
  7. Redesign the transfer student experience.
  8. Implement high-impact practices to address the rates of students earning a D grade, an F grade, a W for withdrawal, or an I for incomplete for a course.
  9. Cultivate strategies to increase students’ sense of belonging.
  10. Strengthen diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Guided by the 10 initiatives noted above, 32 action items are used to implement best practices and proven strategies that MSUB knew would work for all students, while focusing on the equity gaps among all student populations. To determine the effectiveness of the retention and graduation strategy, clearly defined and disaggregated data are being tracked for all student subpopulations, including first-generation, Pell-eligible, non-traditional, student-veterans, student-athletes, Native American, Hispanic, African American, honors students, etc.

Accomplishing the retention and graduation goals as outlined in the 2022–2027 Retention and Graduation Plan helps MSUB educate and prepare Montana’s workforce. The university stresses the value of a college degree to current and prospective students and puts measures in place to help students achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals. Research has shown that earning a degree or certificate from a postsecondary institution has a profound impact on the graduate by increasing their social mobility, life quality outcomes, civic engagement, and many other benefits. By retaining students and shortening the time it takes for them to arrive at graduation, MSUB wants to help them reap all the other benefits that come with a college degree.

The Methodology

Hicswa recognized that to measure student success, a plan was needed to target student outcomes in MSUB’s retention and graduation rates. To develop a retention and graduation plan, she organized the Retention and Graduation Council by mobilizing faculty members from the university’s two-year campus and four-year campus; staff members from admissions, registrar, and housing offices; and the directors of the Native American Achievement Center, TRIO Student Support Services, and recruitment and advising offices. The council met for a year to develop the 2022–2027 Retention and Graduation Plan, during which drafts of the evolving plan were disseminated broadly, and input was received and incorporated from every single organized group on campus, including the academic senate, department chairs, university leadership team, provost council, deans council, other leadership teams, and student government. The authors of this paper co-led the development of the plan and now co-lead its implementation.

Because MSUB is an open-access institution that believes in the value its education provides in promoting the social mobility of its graduates, the council adopted a holistic approach in creating the 2022–2027 Retention and Graduation Plan. The council had extensive data-informed conversations about students with existing strong support structures (e.g., student athletes) and explored ways to replicate and scale successful strategies for other student groups. In designing student support strategies, the council devoted particular attention to improving the university’s engagement with students to build a strong sense of belonging for all its student populations. The council recognized that the Native American Achievement Center had been providing an excellent support system and structure for its students. Using this proven model, the university created La Plaza (for Hispanic students), and other student spaces to meet the needs of various student groups and encourage a sense of belonging. These and other insights were folded into the 2022–2027 Retention and Graduation Plan.

In addition to taking a holistic approach to designing and implementing student engagement and support strategies and structures, the Retention and Graduation Council worked closely with institutional research and other offices to ensure disaggregated student data sets were readily available to all university constituents, creating data sets that allow the university. All university employees can analyze the data from the 2022–2027 Retention and Graduation Plan by gender, race, and ethnicity; enrollment status such as part time or full time; and students who are first generation, eligible for Pell Grants, in the honors program, using TRIO Student Support Services, and are student athletes. A retention rate dashboard with this data is updated daily and can be accessed by all university stakeholders to drive data-informed strategies and actions. Similarly, a graduation rate dashboard provides detailed aggregate and disaggregated data on graduation rates for all student populations. The full list of disaggregated data categories and subcategories is included below.

Disaggregated data categories and subcategories inform strategies and actions to improve retention and graduation rates:

  • Enrollment status
    • full-time, part-time
  • Admission level
    • freshman, transfer
  • Gender
    • female, male, non-binary
  • Student subpopulation
    • first-generation, Pell-eligible, military-affiliated, student athlete, honors, international, non-traditional, TRIO, Montana 101
  • Race and ethnicity
    • American Indian, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, White
  • College
    • students enrolled in all five academic colleges as well as undeclared students
  • Degree category
    • certificate, associate, bachelor
  • Academic program
    • students enrolled in all academic degree programs
  • Residency
    • in state, out of state, Western Undergraduate Exchange

1 Montana 10 is Montana University System’s student success initiative that provides 10 evidence-based support strategies to students participating in the program.

Using the data structure described above, the strategies and action items of the Retention and Graduation Plan are implemented to address the specific needs of student groups, close achievement gaps, create a sense of belonging, and promote holistic student success. Formal care teams have been created (and coded in data structures) for different student populations and follow their own disaggregated data to serve the needs of their students. For example, designated care teams reach out and assist Native American, Hispanic, military-affiliated, TRIO, Montana 10, athlete, international, and honors students. MSUB is mindful that any given approach may need to be fine-tuned to meet the unique needs of different student populations, so the university is always looking for ways to meet the specific needs of all enrolled students.

The Impact

Since the 2022–2027 Retention and Graduation Plan was implemented, MSUB has demonstrated that simple, yet intentional and carefully deployed, measures are beginning to have a significant impact on getting the university closer to its retention and graduation goals. Since 2023, the university has reported the following outcomes:

  • For the most recent cohort of students (fall 2023), the fall-to-spring retention rate for all new students was the highest in 11 years, exhibiting a cumulative increase of 9 percentage points in the past three years and since the inception of the Retention and Graduation Plan.
  • The fall semester of 2023 showed the “second-highest fall-to-fall retention rate in 14 years for all new student groups with increased retention for the majority of student categories tracked and steady enrollment for fall 2023,” according to MSUB.
  • “Compared to fall 2022, undergraduate headcount grew by 2.7% [and] full-time enrolled first-time freshman grew by 2.6% … . The entering freshman cohort of Hispanic students increased 16.4% … . High school student enrollment increased by 17%. At the official 15th class day count, a total of 4,092  students were enrolled,” according to MSUB.

The university may have started with low retention and graduation rates, but it is culturally and strategically committed to making the necessary changes, using the 2022–2027 Retention and Graduation Plan, as a scaffolding for recognizing and making improvements that will bring the retention and graduation rates to where they need to be—and should be.

Key Takeaways

Postsecondary institutions must have active and authentic partnerships among all key stakeholders, as well as the support of leadership for this initiative to be successful. Without their unified backing, the effort to increase retention and graduation rates will be segmented and episodic. There must be a strong and unified vision and culture of student success. Everyone involved must understand and embrace that their college or university measures how well they serve their students by measuring retention and graduation outcomes. All constituents need to be open to reviewing any processes, programs, and structures that are no longer working, and continue to innovate in support of student success. And when a potential new initiative is on the table, everyone needs to ask, “How does this help meet our retention and graduation goals?”

“Our efforts to enhance retention rates and enrollment have produced commendable results. This is a testament to our belief that we should never fear trying new things in support of student success. Embracing change with courage and creativity is ushering in a new era for the institution where we see an increased number of students persisting in attaining their educational goals.”

Stefani Hicswa, chancellor, Montana State University Billings

This website uses cookies to provide necessary functionality, improve your experience, and analyze website traffic. By using this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and our cookies usage.