PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — It’s not in Governor Kristi Noem’s recommended budget, but members of the South Dakota Board of Regents stressed the importance of a tuition freeze during a presentation to the Joint Committee on Appropriations Monday morning.  

A tuition freeze for South Dakota’s six public universities would cost $8.6 million in general fund dollars. 

“It is the board’s highest priority,” Heather Forney, BOR System Vice President of Finance and Administration, told lawmakers. 

While Forney was discussing how a tuition freeze would work, Republican Sen. Jean Hunhoff asked Forney about the drop in South Dakota high school graduates going to higher ed.

According to BOR data, there were 8,899 South Dakota high school graduates in 2020-21 and 63% of the graduates (5,606) enrolled at any kind of post-high school education, but only 28.3% (2,516) attended a SDBOR school. The number was 34.1% in 2016-17, but steadily declined from there. 

Forney said enrollment from SD high school graduates has been dropping for a while.  

“The affordability is truly a component,” Forney said about the drop in SD high school students not attending BOR universities. “We have to make what we have here very attractive.” 

Republican Sen. Jim Bolin said some SD students may have taken advantage of technical schools instead of the four-year universities. 

Forney shared a chart showing where the cost of college for BOR schools ranks compared to surrounding states. For 2023, tuition and fees cost $9,356, which is more than North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming and behind Iowa and Minnesota. 

Forney told lawmakers specific programs and college costs are the top two questions potential students are looking to get answered when deciding where to attend a university. 

Forney also spoke about The Dakota Advantage Program which started in Fiscal Year 2020. It allows all undergraduate students from surrounding states plus Colorado to attend BOR universities and resident rates. 

The program has been expanded to Wisconsin and Illinois starting for 2023-2024 academic year. 

“We encourage students to come to South Dakota,” Forney said, adding the program has not been losing money for the BOR.

FAFSA applications increase

Janice Minder, BOR System Vice President for Academic Policy and Planning, said the number of FAFSA applications filled out by South Dakota students have increased. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the application is tied to BOR scholarships like the Freedom Scholarship and Opportunity Scholarship.

Minder said high school counselors have access to a statewide FAFSA completion portal and South Dakota ranks 6th in the nation for percent of students that fill out FAFSA applications. 

There were 2,627 FAFSA applications completed for the 2023-24 school year, which is up from 2,215 two years ago. Minder said BOR wants to increase FAFSA applications by 5% annually.

Republican Sen. Jack Kolbeck praised the Board of Regents for moving when it awards its scholarships to January. Kolbeck said that the move can help increase enrollment at South Dakota universities by as many as 500 students.  

BOR President Pam Roberts told lawmakers BOR Executive Director Brian Maher was watching son, Brett, play in the Dallas Cowboys vs. San Francisco NFL playoff game Sunday and would not be at Monday’s meeting. 

Black Hills State University battling declining enrollments

Black Hills State University President Laurie Nichols said BHSU has lost about 300 students in total enrollment in the past three years. 

At BHSU, the top declining programs are psychology, elementary education and business administration, while the biggest growth has been in applied health sciences, communication studies and biology. 

Nichols said fewer students are going to college nationally, while some in South Dakota are going to technical colleges and the cost of college has priced students out. 

“There’s a variety of factors,” Nichols said. 

Nichols said BHSU dorms were full in the fall and said the housing market in Spearfish is very tight. 

Democratic Sen. Red Dawn Foster asked if housing played a role in enrollment and retention declines.  

Nichols said housing was a big challenge this fall but it was a barrier.  

Nichols said declining enrollment is of great concern and there’s a new enrollment plan for BHSU. 

Nichols said BHSU produces a lot of teachers but many go across the border to Wyoming where they will receive $10,000 more a year when they start with the first contract.