PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s efforts at attracting university students from other states seem to be succeeding.

That’s the bottom line from a KELOLAND News analysis that looked at a few of the top ways South Dakota’s six public universities are trying to bring in students.

South Dakota’s public universities rely largely on offering tuition breaks to recruit students from other states. What isn’t as easily documented however is how many South Dakota students are going elsewhere.

One of those tuition breaks is called the South Dakota Advantage.

The South Dakota Board of Regents, whose members are appointed by the governor and oversee the state’s public universities, decided in 2018 that undergraduate students from six of the states closest to South Dakota — Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana — should be charged the same tuition rate that a South Dakota undergrad pays.

The Advantage program took effect for fall 2019 and brought some consistency to what had been a hodge-podge of other tuition-reduction programs offered among the various campuses. According to a reduced-tuition report for the past academic year, a total of 3,638 non-resident students received the Advantage rates.

The report however didn’t look at how many South Dakota students were at non-public universities or technical colleges in South Dakota, or how many were taking higher-education courses in other states.

Another significant way South Dakota attracts non-resident students to its public universities is through a reciprocity agreement with its most-populated neighbor, Minnesota, which has about six times more people. South Dakota legislators gave the regents the authority for the pact through a state law passed in 1978.

In a nutshell, South Dakota counts Minnesota students at South Dakota’s public universities, while Minnesota counts South Dakota students at Minnesota’s public universities. The states then share those numbers with each other. The students pay tuition tied to their state’s resident rates.

The most recent data KELOLAND News could locate showed 3,237 students from Minnesota at South Dakota’s public universities and 1,029 students from South Dakota at Minnesota’s public universities. Those numbers, from 2019, resulted in a net gain of 2,208 for South Dakota.

Rolling together the numbers from the Minnesota reciprocity agreement and the six Advantage states generates a net of approximately 5,800 non-residents on South Dakota’s six campuses. That’s roughly equal to one-sixth of the South Dakota public universities’ total fall 2022 headcount of 33,690 — or one-fourth of the fall 2022 full-time equivalent students (FTE) count of 23,969.

The current Board of Regents is trying to increase South Dakota’s professional workforce. The board’s 2022 annual report showed numbers from 2019 indicating that 52.7% of degree-receiving graduates that academic year were placed in South Dakota, either by employment or continued enrollment. That compared to 55.2% from 2015 in the 2019 annual report.

The regents’ 2022 report noted, “Among those FY2019 completers matriculating from South Dakota, the in-state placement rate was 71.55 percent; among all other completers, this figure was 25.3 percent. Approximately 70 percent or more of in-state students graduating from a public university remain in South Dakota after graduation, either to work or to pursue additional postsecondary education. In addition, approximately 25 percent of out-of-state students remain in South Dakota.”

The regents at their December 8 meeting received a report on how the South Dakota Advantage program has been performing. It generated nine times the number of credit hours needed to break even during the past academic year, according to the report, which said state universities saw a positive gain of $13 million from tuition revenue.

That report helped convince the regents they should expand the Advantage program. Starting next summer, Advantage becomes available to students from Illinois and Wisconsin, too. And Advantage also will expand to apply to many graduate programs.

Both states have significantly more people than South Dakota with approximately 900,000. Illinois has a population of more than 12 million and Wisconsin more than 5 million.

There’s more to the equation, as noted in the expansion proposal: “Being able to fill vacant rooms strengthens the housing system by generating additional revenues to support maintenance, repair, and operations of the facilities. Strong housing occupancy helps keep costs down for all students.”

The non-resident graduate change could be just as important. Non-resident graduate students currently pay nearly double per credit hour what South Dakota residents pay. University of South Dakota, for example, charges resident grad students $340.15 and non-residents $654.05. At Dakota State University in Madison, the rates are $333.25 and $622.15. Multiply those amounts by 30 credits — the standard for a graduate degree — and the difference runs in the thousands of dollars.

As the regents considered the expansion, they heard from Heather Forney. She’s the system’s vice president for finance and administration. Forney said that tuition and fee adjustments had typically been made at the regents’ March meetings. But she said voting for the expansion in December would give campuses a four-month head start on their marketing to students in Illinois and Wisconsin. There also would be more time to spread the word among students already on South Dakota’s campuses.

“It’s a pretty low threshold to break even on these kinds of programs,” Forney said. She looked back at the 2018 estimate that 9,000 credits would be needed from non-resident students through the Advantage program and more than 82,000 were generated in the past year. “We anticipate the same would happen with these programs today.”

The regents also heard from Scott Pohlson. He’s vice president for enrollment, marketing and public relations at the University of South Dakota. Pohlson said USD undergrads who were non-residents and were interested in continuing with graduate programs in Vermillion have complained that South Dakota has “a bait and switch” strategy, because the Advantage break didn’t apply at the graduate level.

Pohlson also noted that Illinois had strong potential because it was the second-highest state for students leaving to attend college in another state. In USD’s case, he said that only 6% of the university’s recent applicants from Illinois chose to attend USD. The implication was that expanding the Advantage to include Illinois could make a South Dakota university more competitive.

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology has a similar challenge at the graduate level, according to Molly Moore, the university’s associate vice president for enrollment management. “Cost comes up in every conversation that we have,” she told the regents about what she hears from non-resident students and their families.

Moore urged the regents to extend the Advantage program to graduate programs. “The potential is significant,” she said.

The break-even numbers presented to the regents call for 41 more students from Illinois, 62 more from Wisconsin and 48 more non-resident graduate students. Regent Jeff Partridge of Rapid City asked USD’s Pohlson whether it was fair to say that the current students would bear the costs if the targets aren’t met.

“Yes, that would be one way you could look at that,” Pohlson said.

But Partridge sounded confident the numbers would be reached. “I think there is a ripe opportunity for that,” he said.