As enrollment challenges persist nationwide, USD and SDSU find areas of growth Original
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — There’s fewer students on college campuses across South Dakota’s six public universities.  

Last week, the South Dakota Board of Regents reported a slight decline in headcount enrollment — down 121 students from 2020 and the fourth-straight year of decline. But for the state’s two biggest colleges — South Dakota and South Dakota State — held steady. A deeper dive into enrollment numbers shows some areas of success. 

SDSU’s headcount enrollment was 11,465, up 60 from 2020, while USD’s was 9,464, up five from 2020. Officials for both USD and SDSU agreed colleges are not growing nationwide. 

Both schools also mentioned smaller numbers of high school graduates in the region as a challenge along with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Some students continue to think about what their best options are at this point in time,” said Michaela Willis, SDSU’s Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management. 

Willis said South Dakota colleges are also seeing a national trend of more women attending college, while the number of men attending college continues to decline. 

“That’s something we continue to look at and determine how to encourage our men to consider college as an option,” Willis said. 

Scott Pohlson, USD’s Vice President of Enrollment, Marketing and University Relations, noted all six universities in the BOR report compete against each other and, sometimes, in similar programs. 

“We did have some pockets of success,” Pohlson said. “We also have some challenges we’re going to have to work on.” 

SDSU home to 11,465 students, 55% of them from S.D. 

On SDSU’s campus in Brookings, 2,021 of the 11,465 students are freshmen, which holds steady compared to 2020. Willis emphasized along with gaining some students in the enrollment headcount, SDSU kept an 80% retention rate for students for the second year in a row. 

“We’re pretty proud of the work that we’ve done not only on our headcount by our second-year retention rate,” Willis said. “We’re doing really well on that front.” 

SDSU’s College of Engineering.

Willis said SDSU saw “nice growth” in graduate students and South Dakota residents make up 55% of the student population. 

“Having over 50 percent of our students at South Dakota State University coming right here from the state of South Dakota is a point of pride for us each and every year,” Willis said. “It’s exciting to see that trend continue.” 

She mentioned a new scholarship program called the Jackrabbit ACE First Bank and Trust, which helped 34 students from qualifying high school juniors and seniors in low-income families.

Community College for Sioux Falls, international students lead enrollment gains for USD

On USD’s campus in Vermillion, a record of 109 of the 9,464 students are incoming international students, which brings USD’s total international enrollment, including graduate students, to 248. Officials say more than 50 counties are represented at USD.

“We have certain programs that international students are interested in,” said Pohlson, adding computer science and biomedical engineering.

Pohlson admitted USD wants to grow leaders at the university has been implementing plans to position the school for the future. He noted USD saw record enrollment from students from Minnesota and kept strong numbers for students from Iowa, but said there needs to be added focus on getting South Dakota high school students.

“We’ve got our challenges in terms of the perceived value of higher education in our state,” Pohlson said. “Overall, I think the challenge of higher education when I talk about value is cost. At the end of the day, what is my return on investment compared to me coming to USD.”

Legacy statue on the campus of USD.

He noted South Dakota does not have community colleges, except for the now USD-run Community College for Sioux Falls, which had an increase in enrollment for the Associated of Arts in General Studies program. The two-year program is for first-time, full-time undergraduate students to allow them to start their education which leads into any bachelor’s program at any BOR university.

“That’s what some students want,” Pohlson said. “We are excited about what we saw this year and we think that can grow more next year.”

USD is home to South Dakota’s only medical school and law school, which officials said both had enrollment increases. Pohlson said the pandemic has not impacted the university from teaching future doctors.

“Those students interested in healthcare are people that have a passion for helping people,” Pohlson said. “That’s been a piece of our medical school for a long time. I think where we’ll be challenged the most is on entry-level positions in health care and education.”

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