Maher: Universities focused on the future, reversing enrollment trends as SB55 report finishes

KELOLAND.com Original
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — When Board of Regents Executive Director Dr. Brian Maher looks at college enrollment data, he looks at trends in different time frames. 

For 2021, the system headcount was down 121 students compared to 2020 with a total of 33,445 students in South Dakota’s six public universities. He said enrollment gains were not expected based on the number of high school graduates in South Dakota. 

“The biggest X-factor for our enrollment is the number of high school graduates in the state of South Dakota,” Maher said. “We hope that trend starts to tick up over the next four or five years.” 

Enrollment data from 2011 to 2021 shows a decline of more than 2,500 students, but Maher said he noticed enrollment declines happened six times in the past decade as well as four straight years (2018-2021).

“We want to do everything we can to reverse that trend as well,” he said, adding the BOR’s goal is getting South Dakota students educated. “That’s our primary goal. Beyond that, we’d like to have an in-migration from out of state. We’re actually pretty decent at that.” 

Enrollment numbers tend to focus more on how many new students are coming to South Dakota colleges. Maher said retaining students year-over-year is “critical” to the “enrollment puzzle.” 

South Dakota State University officials touted two years of an 80% retention rate. 

“All of our campuses focus on retention and making sure students stay from their freshmen to their sophomore years,” Maher said. “We want them here throughout that span and graduating with their cohort.” 

When looking ahead to future enrollments, Maher said the new needs-based South Dakota Freedom Scholarship will only help keep more students in the state. 

“We’ll see the fruit of that vision over the next five years, hopefully beginning next year,” he said. 

Higher education task force report finalizing 

At next week’s Board of Regents board meeting, the six-appointed board members will see the final report from the Senate Bill 55 task force. 

The SB 55 task force was created from a 2020 law mandating the regents assemble a task force and study “operations and functions of the institutions of higher education under the board’s authority.” Maher said the task force is currently holding a campus tour to update campus communities and local legislators about the findings. 

Maher said the SB 55 task force helped focus the regents and all six public universities to “take a deep dive into what you do.” 

He called it a “continuous improvement model” and noted many organizations and businesses are always looking for ways to improve. While the final report will be passed on to the Appropriations Committee and Gov. Kristi Noem, Maher said the findings will impact decisions for future planning.

“All of those points are important, but none of those are the end game for the Senate Bill 55 work,” Maher said. “A lot of work is on-going with the implementation of issues raised with Senate Bill 55.”

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