“They start their journey right here.”

So said Montana Tech's Joe McClafferty as he gave a visitor a tour of the university’s brand new Student Success Center on a recent afternoon.

Though not set to officially open until the fall and not yet populated with furniture, staff or, most importantly, students, the about $9 million, 100,000-square-foot building located just west of Tech’s football field was already serving as a gleaming beacon for the future McClafferty and other university leaders hope to bring to the campus perched on Butte’s west side.

McClafferty said that future looks and feels less like a place where students come for class and leave for almost everything else and more like a buzzing hive of round-the-clock student activity and energy.

The SSC “will become the heartbeat” of that new energy, McClafferty said.

But Tech is relying on more than just a building to try to boost student engagement — and enrollment — on campus.

Officials from Tech and from the Montana University System are also optimistic the school’s new chancellor, Les Cook, will bring his extensive experience in student affairs and student life to bear on campus.

“One of the things that I will be focused on with the team (at Tech) is looking at what we’re doing with enrollment but also looking at what we’re doing to build the experience that keeps students at the institution so they’re successful and don’t leave,” Cook said this week.

Cook, who starts in the post at the end of the month, said the SSC will be a “key part” in achieving those goals.

“I think it’s going to be a very impressionable, welcoming space,” Cook said. “I think it’s going to provide a space where students can form bonds at Montana Tech from the minute they step on campus.”

The building’s design reflects the deliberate work that has gone into finding ways to make those impressions and form those bonds.

Designers made the dorm rooms “pretty small” on purpose and added lots of common areas in an effort to ensure students get out of their rooms and start interacting, and they put whiteboards on the walls and tables of study rooms where students will work collaboratively on school projects.

Planners have also given upperclassmen priority to fill the building’s 166 new dormitory beds in an effort to keep them on campus and interacting with the underclassmen who currently occupy most of the school’s existing 288 dorm spots.

Those interactions, McClafferty said, are crucial to creating relationships and binding students more firmly to Tech.

And that, he believes, will be “crucial” to the university’s efforts to “attract and retain students.”

Attracting and retaining students is vital because Montana Tech’s enrollment numbers have been sliding in recent years. The university’s spring 2019 full-time enrollment was down almost 7 percent from the year before and has dropped nearly 16 percent just since 2015.

McClafferty said those declines are tied to trends in the resource-extraction industry, which Tech trains many of its students to enter, and that the university has long known that hard times were coming. It was those concerns that led him and others at the university to start planning for what has become the SSC back in 2012, according to McClafferty, president of the Montana Tech Foundation and Tech's vice chancellor for advancement and university relations.

“Students are picking universities based on what their life’s going to be like there,” McClafferty said to explain a main motivation for pursuing the SSC, which includes two floors of dorms and a top floor devoted to advising, recruitment, enrollment and other services.

The building aims to sell students on a southwest Montana life with floor-to-ceiling photos of outdoorsy action, sweeping views to the south of Butte and a location adjacent to Alumni Field.

“We wanted this (new building) to be ‘wow,’ and you can’t do ‘wow’ with state dollars,” McClafferty said.

Not that the university didn’t try, asking the Montana University System’s Board of Regents years ago to fund a new dorm on campus.

When that request was turned down, McClafferty and the Montana Tech Foundation started looking for philanthropists to pay for the project. And alumni, in particular, came through. While the Foundation is still raising the last bit needed, the SSC will ultimately be funded with no taxpayer money.  

The result is a building that McClafferty and Cook say will help change the campus look and feel.

“It gives much more of a college sense than what we’ve ever had before,” McClafferty said as he made his way past and through sleek offices, expansive lobbies, a future café and some of the new dormitory rooms. “It looks like a real college now.”

As Cook prepares to take the reins of Tech, he pointed to a slew of recent rankings from educational websites that place the school at or near the top of a number of categories and said the university needs to share those kinds of successes. (See related content).

“We don’t do a very good job telling our story,” Cook said. “I’ve been blunt about that from day one. We have to get that fine-tuned. I think we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to share and we have to bolder about how we do that.”

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