Financial load has become heavier on students at S.D. public universities, former leaders say

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Harvey Jewett and Jim Abbott told a study panel Thursday that students have been paying substantially more at South Dakota’s public universities in recent years than they did several decades ago and want the responsibility to start shifting back onto state government’s budget.

Their remarks came during a meeting of a task force the Legislature assigned to scrutinize the operations and functions at the six state universities. The group must deliver a report no later than November 15, 2021, to the governor and the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations.

Jewett, an Aberdeen lawyer and Republican businessman, served 20 years on the state Board of Regents that governs the public universities, including 10 as board president. The governor appoints the members. Abbott, a lawyer, is the past president at the University of South Dakota and was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2002.

The two had sent a 15-page letter to legislators last winter about finances in the regents system. They tried to drive the message home again Thursday.

Asked where the universities should be headed, Abbott said South Dakota has done “a pretty good job” educating students. “I think it’s going to demand further investment, and I don’t think our students can make that investment,” he said.

Abbott said there was a time during the 1960s when state government provided about 65% of a student’s cost.

Jewett said the Legislature now furnishes about one-third and students pay the balance.

Getting the ratio back to 50-50 would require $60 million more from the state treasury, according to Jewett. “Is $60 million going to happen this year? Probably not.”

Abbott agreed with Jewett that everybody within the regents system needs to be on the same page in their messages to the governor and legislators.

Abbott said South Dakota overall is near the bottom among states in education attainment but is near the top for average wage of college graduates when adjusted for cost of living.  

Senator Art Rusch, a Republican from Vermillion and a retired circuit judge, said the Legislature has never received a ‘state of the universities’ speech that he could recall. State lawmakers currently hear speeches from the governor, the state Supreme Court chief justice and a tribal government person during the first three afternoons of the annual session.

Regents executive director Brian Maher, who started last summer after serving as the Sioux Falls School District Superintendent, told the panel he plans to spread optimism to legislators in the 2021 session and show results to them in 2022. “I really think in April we’re going to have a good idea where we’re headed,” Maher said.

He is the regents’ fourth executive director since Tad Perry retired in 2009 and the first in decades to come from South Dakota. Neither of the past two was retained past his initial contract.

The group Thursday also heard via videoconference from Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s commissioner for higher education. She’s led the coordinating agency since 2009. “These are complex issues you’re dealing with,” Lubbers said.

Leadership is required at every level, including the governor and legislators, to be successful, according to Lubbers. She acknowledged the process now underway could be “messy” and “unpleasant” at times but could prove worthwhile. 

“Thanks for the pep talk,” Maher responded.

Headcount totaled 33,566 this fall, down 954 from fall 2019, according to the regents. There are six traditional campuses — South Dakota State University in Brookings, USD at Vermillion, Dakota State University in Madison, Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology at Rapid City, and Black Hills State University in Spearfish — along with university centers at Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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