Adapting a Wraparound Student Support Program for College Students in Rural Areas: A Conversation with Crystine Miller and Alyssa Ratledge

Crystine Miller and Alyssa Ratledge

Montana 10 is a scholarship program offered by the Montana University System that offers wraparound academic, social, and financial supports to students from rural areas, first-generation college students, and Native American students. MDRC is partnering with the Montana University System on an evaluation of Montana 10.

In this episode, Leigh Parise speaks with Crystine Miller, Director of Student Affairs and Student Engagement in the Montana University System, and Alyssa Ratledge, a Research Associate in Postsecondary Education at MDRC, about the Montana 10 evaluation and its potential value to the field of higher education research. The pair describes the unique challenges of conducting an evaluation in a mostly rural higher education system. They also highlight what questions the evaluation is hoping to answer about rural students. For example, does the choice between returning to one’s hometown after graduating and moving away to pursue employment carry a special weight for students from rural backgrounds?

To learn more about the Montana 10 project and some of the barriers facing rural students in postsecondary education, check out this recent commentary by Ratledge in The Hechinger Report.

Leigh Parise: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on what works to improve the lives of people with low incomes. I’m your host, Leigh Parise.

When it comes to rural students, college-going can be drastically different from the traditional experience. More than 35 million people live in education deserts, or places without any local public colleges. For them, the calculation about going to and staying in college looks very different. Despite similar high school graduation rates to their urban and suburban peers, rural college-going rates are much lower, and the lack of reliable internet access in many remote areas excludes online options.

Today we’ll talk about Montana 10, a Montana University System scholarship and student support program operating in seven public colleges, that aims to address the unique challenges faced by rural-serving colleges and their students. It’s part of a study being conducted by MDRC in partnership with Montana’s Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. Today I talk with Crystine Miller, Director of Student Affairs and Student Engagement at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education of the Montana University System, and Alyssa Ratledge, a research associate in MDRC’s postsecondary education policy area, who specializes in rural higher education. We discuss the challenges facing rural students and what we hope to learn from the evaluation of Montana 10. Crystine and Alyssa, welcome to Evidence First.

Crystine Miller: Thank you so much for having us, Leigh.

Alyssa Ratledge: Thank you, Leigh. I’m so happy to be here.

Leigh Parise: All right Crystine, I would love to start with you, and it would be great if you can just tell us a little bit, from your perspective, about the unique challenges that rural institutions in Montana and their students are facing.

Crystine Miller: So this is a really good question, because as Alyssa knows [and] as you know, rural students and the challenges that they face and the institutions that they are served by, I think are kind of becoming more and more a part of our national discourse and how we talk about the needs in higher education. And you know, in your introduction, Leigh, you talked a little bit about what “rural-ness” means, and education deserts, where students don’t have a college [that is] local to them.

I want to kind of paint a picture for you about what that looks like in Montana. The southeast corner of Montana is closer to Texas than it is the northeast corner or the northwest corner of Montana, so Montana is a huge place, and it’s not just big, it’s very rural. There are very few higher education institutions and opportunities that serve that very vast geography.

Now, in the Montana University System, there are 16 public colleges and universities. Three of those are community colleges that are affiliated with us, but have their own boards of trustees. The other colleges are the only public institution options in our state. We do have seven tribal colleges in the state of Montana, but those 16 campuses in the Montana University System are the only public options in that huge geography that I just described.

So when you think about that, that tells us a lot about one of the biggest challenges that rural students face, which is just getting there, just knowing about an option and being able to go there. By nature of our rural state, most students have to uproot their lives and move. We do have some options for place-bound students, and increasingly as a system, we’re thinking about that, but most of Montana is an education desert, and so that is one of the biggest challenges that students in our state face, and our rural students in particular.

I think some of the other challenges are around affordability and just the fact of being first generation. Many counties in Montana are below median income for the state. Their college attainment levels, I think one of the lowest college attainment counties in our state is around 12 percent, so many students coming from rural places are economically disadvantaged. Paying for college is a huge and sometimes prohibitive challenge. And also, many students who are prospective students don’t necessarily have a parent, or an aunt, or an uncle, or a cousin, or a brother, or a sister, or a neighbor even who went to college before them. And so that fact of being first generation [students] in rural places is really impactful for students and poses a huge challenge.

I guess the final thing I’ll mention on this point is that we have a significant population of American Indian students here in Montana, and for our American Indian students these challenges that I’m describing, being low income, living in rural places that are often education deserts, and being first generation [students] are often kind of intersected in a lot of our American Indian students or prospective student populations. So those things  kind of combine, in particular for our American Indian students who might seek to go to college.

Leigh Parise: Thank you. I really appreciate you painting such a clear picture. So tell us, how does Montana 10 address the needs of Montana students specifically?

Crystine Miller: Montana 10 is a program designed to help address the challenges that I just described. Montana 10 is a comprehensive student support program, that looks at all of the challenges that students face, understands how those challenges are connected, and then builds a program to help create supports for students that we know will help them get through college and earn their degree.

There are really three areas where we see our students in Montana struggle. Financial supports: Often, students in Montana—rural, low-income, underserved students—face financial challenges in paying for college. It becomes a huge barrier in their ability to persist and graduate. Students, often from rural places, may be academically under-prepared. Our rural schools in Montana may not have the kind of access to secondary [school] teachers in math disciplines, for example. They might face other systemic barriers in having the academic preparation that help students persist and stay in school. And finally, students from Montana who are from low-income backgrounds, first-generation backgrounds, often feel like they don’t belong.

Imagine if you are from Rosebud County in Montana, where the biggest town is less than a few thousand people, and you move to a college where there are almost 20,000 people on that campus, and the dorm that you live in is bigger than your hometown. It’s easy to see how some students might not feel like they fit in, or that they don’t know how to navigate that situation, particularly if they are a first-generation college student and don’t have a parent, or a sibling, or another family member who has gone through before them.

So Montana 10 is really designed to address all of those kinds of challenges that are really connected to one another. And again, the program has three main types of supports: financial support, academic support, and helping students develop purpose and belonging through something we call social supports.

Leigh Parise: Great. Thank you so much. Alyssa, now I know we are really excited to get to be partnering with this team. Tell us about the evaluation of Montana 10. What do you hope to learn, and what excites you about it?

Alyssa Ratledge: We at MDRC will be evaluating the Montana 10 intervention using a randomized control trial, which is widely considered the gold standard for efficacy studies of social programs. Essentially, what this will allow us to do is measure the estimated impact of the program on students’ academic outcomes, so is the program helping more students go to college, stay in college, earn more credits, and most important, get those students through to graduation, and do that on time? Another thing I’m excited about in this study is we have a robust qualitative study to complement the quantitative outcomes, where we’ll be able to learn more about what it takes to serve rural students, as well as the experiences of the smaller and more rural institutions that are implementing the program.

We have a lot of evidence in this space about the great value to students of multifaceted support programs. You’ve heard of a lot of the big ones. They’ve been tested in big cities, tested in suburbs. This is the first time that we at MDRC will be conducting an RCT, or randomized control trial, of a multifaceted support program that really spans every institution type, from a flagship down to a small rural college, and is serving a really substantial portion of rural-located students.

I think one of the especially cool things about this study is we’ll be able to understand what students’ goals and experiences are, which for a lot of us is kind of an open question in the field. Are we looking at students who are coming from small towns, planning to leave those towns, and using college as a gateway to do that? Are they going to another state? Are they going to a big city? Or are those students looking to gain a credential and go back to their hometown, and really support the long-term economic development and viability, particularly in towns that in Montana, that we know have enormous workforce needs in vital industries, like education, and health care? Are we seeing those students go back to their towns, use their degrees to support the viability of those communities they’re from? I think we’re going to learn a lot from students. I’m eager to see what that looks like, and allow us to hear directly from students, complementing those quantitative findings down the road.

Crystine Miller: One of the other things that I’m so excited about learning through the evaluation, and being able to talk to students, is their feelings and their kind of identity stake in going to college. As I said, many of our rural students are also first-generation students, and I think that that choice of going to college—leaving their hometowns, moving away from everything they know—that has big identity implications for many of our students, and even while Montana is a net importer of college graduates, we often see a fear in students in communities that going to college will mean taking those students away from their homes permanently. And so I’m really excited to learn what our students have to say about that, and then to be able to trace their path as they move from graduation into the workforce, and see how they’re understanding what a college degree means for them as they make those choices about where they live and work.

Leigh Parise: That’s great. Thank you, and that, I think actually brings me to a question that I have been wondering about, and I would love for you to just say a little bit more. Maybe add to what you just said, about kind of why for Montana, why was it so important for you all to be able to do a study that was specifically happening within your state? So, as Alyssa said, there is a quite a bit of evidence already about multifaceted support programs, so say a little bit more about why that really mattered to you all.

Crystine Miller: That’s a really good question. You know, when we piloted this program, we originally launched Montana 10 for about 200 students at the University of Montana, Missoula College, which is a two-year college in Missoula, and Helena College, which is another two-year college here in Helena. What we found after a year, I was so happy to be able to share these outcomes. We did kind of an internal match sample analysis of our retention from fall to fall from that first cohort. Compared to their match sample peers, our Montana 10 students retained at 16 percentage points higher.

Now, I think we have a different kind of standard of evidence in our RCT, and that’s partially why we wanted to do this, but at that time, we reported these findings to our board of regents, the governing authority over our university system, and they were so excited about this. We’d been looking to try to make this kind of major progress in student success for a long time, and I think we found it in this model. Our system and our campuses were really excited about moving ahead, and to do that, we felt like the best path is to have high-quality evidence to not just demonstrate the impacts of the program, but to also understand what’s going on in those programs that is being so effective, and how do we model that and replicate that going forward?

Alyssa Ratledge: That’s a great point. One of the things that I think is so interesting about the Montana 10 evaluation is it’s going to help us understand what the modern student is experiencing. So, mental health issues, food insecurity, housing insecurity. I think it’s going to help us understand what students’ experiences are in more rural areas, where there aren’t a lot of other providers of housing, or other options for them to seek out—nonprofit or charitable supports—locally. They are relying on the institution or on family support in a way that we don’t always see in more highly resourced urban areas, even those with high levels of poverty.

In addition, I think we’re going to learn some important things about how rural students interact with their institutions. Are they living on or off campus? Are they taking advantage of resources on or off campus? How are they thinking about the decisions that they’re making, in terms of their post-pandemic career trajectory and the choices about where they’re going to live?

Crystine Miller: I think national discussions about the value of higher education [are] so important to how we are thinking about Montana 10 and our state. We know that nationally, trends are seeing lower enrollment in higher education. We’re seeing stagnant retention and graduation in higher education. What we are trying to do in Montana 10 is to acknowledge that college is worth it in terms of wage outcomes. We still know that to be true. We also know that for students who have some college, no degree, and debt, that return on investment just is not there for them.

What Montana 10 is trying to do is lower that barrier to entry in terms of the financial commitment and affordability for students, and also to say, “You will have a much better chance of making it through and earning your degree.” Such that whatever investment you made at the beginning actually is worth it for you in the end, and it’s not only worth it for you, but it’s worth it for our state, because we have a lower cost per degree, because we’ve been able to increase graduation rates so much, even though the investment with Montana 10 is higher. We also see students as individuals realize that return on investment, because they have achieved their degree and then [they] have access to different kinds of workforce options than they would have had without.

Leigh Parise: I think that’s so important, and I’m really glad that that’s the turn that we’ve taken. So, I appreciate the focus on, for individual students, the cost and the resources, but then Crystine, to your point, also thinking about the resources for the institution. I think earlier we talked about some of the resource constraints faced by a lot of rural colleges, and as you said, one of the goals of Montana 10 is also to be a good investment for the colleges in the long run, and then it could potentially support their financial health. So can you say a little bit more about that? You were starting to head in that direction, so it’d be great for you to say more.

Crystine Miller: You bet. That’s a really good question, and this is exactly one of the reasons why we are undertaking this as a system initiative. You know, I’m not a higher education budget and finance person, but from my perspective, part of what Montana 10 is trying to do is to really look at our core mission, which is to graduate students in degrees that have quality, and where students can go out into the workforce. Part of the challenge of our rural institutions right now is that they have very few students, and yet they serve many, many workforce needs across a huge geography. So they have to sustain a lot of academic programming, they have to do so for relatively few students, and then they also have to do so for students who have... I don't know if they have higher needs, but they have significant needs, whether that’s financial, academic preparation, other supports, basic need supports, mental health supports, all of the things that Alyssa and I have been talking about.

So there’s a huge demand on institutions, and what I think Montana 10 and comprehensive student support programs teach us is that if we can keep those students, that’s not just an investment in the student’s future, but it’s also an investment in those institutions, because they retain them. They have those additional revenues, whether that’s from tuition, or from Pell, or whatever kind of makes up that revenue budget for institutions. But keeping students is good for our institutions, not just reputationally, not just because that’s our mission, but it really helps our bottom line.

Leigh Parise: Thank you. That's really great, and I feel like you got us to a nice point at the end. Although I feel like I and other people listening would be missing out if I didn’t ask one follow-up question that is just, to the two of you, this feels very personal like it’s something that you’re very passionate about. I’d love to hear from both of you a little bit about what makes you so excited about this work. Crystine, I don’t know if you are from Montana originally [or] if you were a student who had some of these experiences yourself, but I’d be interested to hear a little bit about that.

Crystine Miller: I am from a rural agricultural town called Lewistown, that is in the heart of the state. If you don’t know Montana, or if you only know it from looking at it on a map, if you put your finger right in the middle, that’s the exact town that I’m from. I grew up in a household where my dad did not have a college degree and my mom was a teacher. You know, my family had a really good life. My parents provided a great life for us in a rural place, and they always encouraged us to pursue education and to make use of that in the world, and not just to make use of it for ourselves, but to make use of it in our communities. And so to me, that has always been my professional commitment, and one of the reasons why I feel like I have an obligation, almost, to do work like this.

Leigh Parise: Thank you so much for sharing that. The state is very lucky to have you being there, thinking about other students and how you can [support] them especially. I can see why you’re so passionate about it. Alyssa, do you want to say anything?

Alyssa Ratledge: I grew up in Arizona, outside of the Phoenix area, about one mile from the Salt River Pima community, and spent many of my teenage years seeing the pretty stark inequities between the more developed Phoenix area and the extremely underdeveloped, and in some places still un-electrified areas of Native land in Arizona. A lot of my high school years, people talked constantly, “Are you staying or are you going?” Those were our two paths, did you stay in our town forever—most girls did—or did you get out, and some of us did that.

So to me, these questions about how to understand what rural students’ goals and aspirations are, and whether they’re able to achieve those things, and whether they’re staying, going, coming back, those are all personal questions I have, and also, I think, big holes in the research literature. We don’t know a lot. We don’t have a lot of studies where rural students or Native American students are included. We don’t have a lot of studies where rural colleges are included.

That includes MDRC. We run a lot of RCTs. We need nice, big sample sizes. That’s really hard to do in small colleges, so I’m honored to finally be part of a project where we’re able to fully include rural students and rural colleges in a larger randomized control trial. It’s achieving a professional goal of mine for many years, and I think it’s going to be something that we’ll be able to share widely with regional partners, with other rural states or other rural communities, who are looking for information about how to do things that are really going to fit their local context and needs.

Leigh Parise: That’s great. Thank you so much. I feel like, Alyssa, you’ve gotten us to a really perfect ending place. I know I am really excited to see what comes of this study and the work that we are doing together. I just want to say thank you to you, Alyssa, and to you, Crystine. It’s been really great to have you join me.

Crystine Miller: Thank you so much for having us, and I’m happy to be able to talk about Montana 10, and I just have to say thank you to Alyssa and the MDRC team, as well as to the Montana 10 teams at the seven institutions that are running the program here in the Montana University System.

Leigh Parise: To learn more about Montana 10 and MDRC’s study, visit Did you enjoy this episode? Subscribe to the Evidence First podcast for more.

About Evidence First

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More