South Dakota’s public universities saw students’ debts go up, actually quite a lot, in recent years

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Roughly 3,700 of the 34,520 students who enrolled at South Dakota’s public universities in fall 2019 still owed money to the campuses when classes wrapped up the following spring.

Their unpaid bills for that academic year totaled $4,164,987.

The figure was, actually, good news. It was less than the debt left behind the previous year, when students went away owing $4,479,419.

KELOLAND News analyzed reports to the state Board of Regents that showed students’ accounts-receivables, as well as additional financial data requested from the state campuses.

An odd trend surfaced.

Fall enrollments from 2015 to 2019 had been relatively stagnant at the state universities in Brookings, Vermillion, Madison, Aberdeen, Rapid City, Spearfish and Sioux Falls.

Yet students’ debt from 2019 was more than double what it had been four years earlier.

Student debt jumped from $2,147,684 for fiscal 2015, to $2,931,867 for fiscal 2016. Then it edged up to $3,063,219 for fiscal 2017, and bumped up a little more to $3,184,964 for fiscal 2018.

Then came the spike to $4,479,419 for fiscal 2019 and the relative retreat to $4,164,987 for fiscal 2020.

It should be noted that university officials weren’t letting the debtors off the hook.

They used a variety of tools in attempts to get some or all of the money that a student owed.

For example, university officials refused to release students’ transcripts unless outstanding receivables had been paid.

The universities next turned over millions of dollars of debt to the state’s obligation recovery center to pursue, followed by private collection agencies.

When some of those efforts didn’t work, the universities went to the state Board of Finance and asked for the debts to be written off their ledgers. The holds stayed on the students’ records, however.

Gradually, the amounts still outstanding have receded. The $2,147,684 owed from 2015 came down to $746,585 by the June 30 close of the 2020 fiscal year. Debt from 2016 dropped to $1,004,392. From 2017, down to $1,160,651. From 2018, down to $1,320,608. And from 2019, down to $1,751,297.

A previous KELOLAND News story about 2020 data misinterpreted various aspects of the report. After that story, Heather Forney, regents’ vice president for finance and administration, said changes would be made on future reports so there are fewer opportunities for errors.

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