Tech campuses in South Dakota face so much uncertainty in this new COVID-19 economy

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Tuition and fees could be nearly the same next fall as they are right now at South Dakota’s tech schools.

Or not. South Dakota leaders will have a better idea come June.

That’s when the governor plans a special legislative session on the budget.

Right now, no one knows what to expect.

Except that COVID-19 will keep tightening its grip, and changing people’s everyday lives, in South Dakota and throughout much of the world.

In South Dakota, state government pays part of the cost for students to attend the tech campuses in Sioux Falls and Mitchell, and in Watertown and Rapid City.

That means what legislators do in June, could have a lot to say, when classes open again in August, especially about what students pay.

The state Board of Technical Education set tuition and fees Tuesday. They’ll go up just one buck, to $163 per credit hour.

But there’s a catch.

The coronavirus.

COVID-19.

In just the past few weeks, the positive cases keep climbing.

And human activity keeps getting more confining.

Schools are closed. Colleges and universities online only. Graduations canceled. Non-essential workers, working from home, or not at all. Restaurants down to only drive-up and, if you’re lucky, delivery.

And people washing their hands, the more the better, while they to stay at least six feet apart, whenever they can.

This is the new coronavirus economy, and it’s difficult to predict how much lower this downturn can go.

State officials should have a better idea by June about what that light at the far end of the tunnel is.

The sun shining?

Or a giant ugly locomotive train, barreling headlong at us.

What the people in the know recommend, and what legislators then decide, will set a path we can follow in the months ahead.

The state board meanwhile has its own rough plan.

If the tuition and fees aren’t enough at the techs to balance their accounting books, the board will tack on something to generate more revenue.

They already have a phrase for it.

Local add-on fees.

One of the board members, Terry Sabers of Mitchell, wants the discussion to start at the next meeting.

What might those local fees look like?

How much might they be?

The board’s executive director is Nick Wendell. He, said Tuesday his tuition and fees recommendations for this fall were built off the budget the Legislature approved March 12.

He described the numbers used for his proposal based on “what we knew then.”

What he knows now, only a few weeks later, is how much uncertainty surrounds that budget.

“What you see,” Wendell told the board, “is our thinking as of yesterday (Monday).”

He knows that COVID-19 will have some bad effects on revenue.

Governor Noem recently used words such as “drastic.”

Wendell said he’s trying to maintain affordability wherever the schools can.

But if there are dramatic changes, in the economy or from the Legislature, he will look at the local numbers for each campus and try to adjust through those local fees.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sabers agrees with the philosophy and the intent of what Mr. Executive Director Wendell is doing.

“I think we need to have the tuition on a flat rate,” Sabers said.

He wasn’t shy Tuesday about saying there probably will be a drastic decrease in funding.

And if that happens, it means taking a serious look, during the board’s next meeting, at the potential of those local add-on fees.

Dana Dykhouse of Sioux Falls is the board’s chairman. “We might be meeting almost monthly for a while, with the changing dynamics,” he said. 

Wendell agreed. “Our institutions are under a tremendous pressure right now.”  

“Interesting times, to say the least,” Dykhouse said, As he wrapped up, he added this thought. “I’m sure we’ll be in touch again soon, on what direction we go, on a variety of things.” 

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

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