S.D. universities’ leaders explain to legislators how they hope to attract a broader range of students

Capitol News Bureau
Regents president says community key in state's first community college

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The people who oversee South Dakota’s public higher-education system are trying some new ways to enroll more students and bust loose from years of flat enrollment.

The state Board of Regents changed the name, focus and financial arrangements at the Sioux Falls joint campus this year, switching from University Center to USD Community College for Sioux Falls.

The April 5 news release flew under many lawmakers’ radar one week after the 2019 legislative session ended and didn’t mention the new name.

The regents also plan to ask Governor Kristi Noem to recommend the Legislature give a healthy boost of student aid. Dakota Promise scholarships would target students from lower-income households who are eligible for federal Pell financial assistance.

Those two themes stood out Thursday when top officials from four state-university campuses and the system’s CEO met with the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.

Their primary purpose was to present financial reports from the Sioux Falls and the BHSU-Rapid City campuses, but the discussions with legislators roamed for more than an hour.

University of South Dakota president Sheila Gestring explained why the regents changed the direction of University Center in Sioux Falls to essentially the state’s first public two-year college.

Gestring said the old model was headed the wrong direction. Now the regents want to focus most on recruiting from the 600-plus new high school graduates in the Sioux Falls area each year who don’t go on to higher education but could if they had more direct help.

She said the previous financial arrangement for what was University Center wasn’t balanced, either, with South Dakota State University in Brookings and Dakota State University in Madison subsidizing the center’s operations while USD — the managing partner, based in Vermillion — made a little money.

Meanwhile enrollment at University Center had dropped sharply in recent years. Enrollments also dropped significantly at the Rapid City center and plunged to the point that the regents essentially closed the Capital University Center campus in Pierre. All three had been opened in the past decade.

“The changes that we brought forward in the spring were the result of the trend that we were seeing. We needed to make some changes to the operating agreement between the three universities,” Gestring said.

Dakota State University president Jose’-Marie Griffiths said the new approach could benefit some of the students, who otherwise haven’t been taking any courses on any campus after high school and wouldn’t seem to be a natural fit for online courses.

“Those students not necessarily jumping right into the bachelor’s degree, but they are looking at starting out in a slower way, students who might otherwise not go into post-secondary education — that’s the focus we both have. So we have a different audience who won’t necessarily be as comfortable in the online world,” Griffiths said.

The regents meanwhile are regrouping for a second try at Dakota Promise scholarships, this time seeking $2 million from the Legislature.

If the governor and lawmakers approve, the money would be available to students from lower-income households who are Pell-grant eligible at state universities, private universities and tribal colleges and universities in South Dakota.

“We believe we can bring in at least five hundred to a thousand more students into the system,” regents executive director Paul Beran told lawmakers.

A request for $1 million died in the House of Representatives earlier this year after it failed to receive a two-thirds majority. The regents discussed the new $2 million request at their August 7 meeting in Fort Pierre.

Enrollment statistics for the past 10 years are at page 12 of the regents’ 2019 Fact Book. The 2019 numbers will be announced in September.

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