Regents plan a second try at Dakota Promise scholarships

Capitol News Bureau
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FORT PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Earlier this year, there wasn’t quite enough support in the South Dakota House of Representatives to provide $1 million of state aid to help university students who come from lower-income households and would be eligible for federal Pell grants.

Some lawmakers thought the affordability proposal was too open. It lacked minimums for students to qualify, such as high school grade-point averages and college-entrance exam scores.

The Dakota Promise legislation nonetheless made it through the Senate 35-0, before falling short of a two-thirds majority in the House, where the vote on the House version was 37-28.

Now the state Board of Regents wants to take those lessons and make a second run.

The regents informally agreed Wednesday that in the 2020 session they would seek $2 million and the legislation would have grade-point and ACT/SAT standards. It also would be broader, by making students eligible at tribal higher-education institutions too.

Regents President Kevin Schieffer of Sioux Falls gradually led the other members away from a plan offered by Paul Beran, the regents’ executive director, that Schieffer argued was too loose and too expensive.

Schieffer wants a more restrictive approach that he said would be better positioned for making it through a 2020 legislative session that promises to be just as financially tight.

South Dakota doesn’t have a general scholarship program specifically for Pell-eligible students.

Beran’s proposal was based on a 3.0 high school GPA and an 18 ACT score. It would have cost an estimated $6 million per group of students over the course of four years.

Schieffer said an 18 ACT was too low. Four of South Dakota’s state universities use 18 as the minimum for admission, while two — South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, and University of South Dakota at Vermillion — require higher scores.

Regents Barb Stork of Dakota Dunes and Joan Wink of Howes said they favored Schieffer’s approach of setting the ACT at a higher level, at least for the public universities the regents govern, and getting the Dakota Promise program on a successful path.

Schieffer said the criteria should be a 22 ACT for the state-funded campuses. Private universities and tribal campuses might have lower minimums.

While board members ate lunch with local legislators, some of the regents central-office staff began talking about changing the proposal so it could be presented later to the board.

The Dakota Promise concept would make a combination of state and private aid available to some students who qualify for Pell grants at public, private and tribal universities and colleges in South Dakota that provide matching amounts.

The Dakota Promise legislation that failed this year would have required each participating institution to match the new state aid dollar for dollar.

Beran’s proposal Wednesday steered away from that, because of what he described as “donor fatigue” that he said sets in after a few years. University presidents nodded in confirmation with his observation.

Schieffer however revived the dollar-for-dollar concept.

He wants participating universities and colleges to come up with $2 million to provide matching amounts for the $2 million the regents plan to request from the Legislature.

“One million failed, so we’re asking for six?” Schieffer said. “My question is, are we blind to reality here?”

The nine board members, six presidents and central-office staff returned to the discussion at mid-afternoon. The revised plan showed 350 total students — 240 at state universities, 42 at private schools and 68 at tribal campuses — in the first year, but that was based on $2,000 per student.

The estimated used an annual retention of 80 percent, so that by year four it would cost just over $2 million.

Schieffer said the state aid per student should be the same as the 2019 session proposal of $2,500.

“We’re going to work on the details,” Schieffer said.

On future funding for it, Schieffer said the money could be pieced together. “That’s the least of our worries,” he said.

Regent John Bastian of Belle Fourche asked how there would be parity between state and tribal campuses if state campuses used a 22 ACT minimum and tribal campuses were at a lower minimum.

Schieffer conceded some students might choose tribal colleges.

Bastian questioned whether the top eligible ACT should be limited to 26.

“I don’t know what the number is,” Schieffer said.

Bastian wanted the universities’ presidents to comment on whether the program would be feasible without a match.

“The political reality is, if there’s not a match there, we’re spinning our wheels,” Schieffer said.

Northern State University president Tim Downs said that, if new match money is needed, then the program would be more cumbersome.

Schieffer said it should be the same as the session program where existing money could be re-programmed. He said the match could be eliminated for tribal colleges.

Regent Randy Schaefer of Madison disagreed: “I don’t think we want to allow that, no match for anybody.”

Schieffer’s response: How giving tribal campuses a no-match exemption would hurt any institution that gives a match? “I see no inconsistency in treating them differently than ours,” Schieffer said.

Schaefer said there could be an argument that state campuses will be at a competitive disadvantage against tribal institutions.

“We’re in the weeds on that. I’m not concerned about it,” Schieffer said.

Regent Jim Thares of Aberdeen said winning the Legislature’s approval will depend on selling how underfunded the public universities are. Thares told Schieffer, “I’m so afraid you’re going to make it so convoluted.”

“Fair enough,” Schieffer said, “I’m trying to make it unconvoluted.”

NSU’s Downs said legislators need to understand there will be a consortium of federal, state and local funding. “You have to paint the whole picture,” Downs said.

School of Mines president Jim Rankin said state-university foundations, which legally are independent of state universities, shouldn’t be required to put money in a state account that would pay for the program.

Rankin asked what the selection process would be if the program becomes too successful.

Said executive director Beran: “I don’t know how else you could do it fairly, if it’s not first-come first-served.”

“To me we’re talking about details the board doesn’t have to wrassle around with,” Schieffer said.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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