PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — It’s been state law for more than a decade now. That South Dakota students must pay higher tuition rates for courses at the Black Hills State University-Rapid City campus, than South Dakota students pay across town at School of Mines and Technology, or 40 miles away at BHSU’s main campus in Spearfish, or at any of South Dakota’s other four traditional public universities.
That’s because BHSU-Rapid City, as well as campuses in Sioux Falls and Pierre, began life in the 2000s as state university centers. Lawmakers at the time were reluctant to give approval to new campuses, so they required the centers to be self-supporting, meaning the centers didn’t receive state support the same way that the six traditional state universities did.
Times have changed. Students never came in large enough numbers to the new campuses. The Sioux Falls center now is a community college, run by the University of South Dakota; the Pierre center is now a satellite campus for private-college students; and Black Hills State manages the Rapid City center.
On Wednesday, top BHSU officials told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee that it’s time for the state law to change.
President Laurie Sternberg Nichols and Kathy Johnson, the university’s vice president for finance and administration, said the tuition disparity is a barrier to people who might otherwise enroll in the allied health sciences courses offered on the Rapid City campus.
The latest goal at the Rapid City center is to build a pipeline of students able to advance into the nursing program that South Dakota State University is expanding there, under a cooperative agreement. They are jointly trying to offset a shortage of nurses in western South Dakota. SDSU plans to grow to 120 nursing students there each year.
That effort to reframe the purpose of the Rapid City campus is part of the regents’ response to SB 55, the 2020 legislation that forced the regents to assemble a task force to look at how the universities were managed and report back to the appropriations committee.
The discussion came the same day that legislation was filed for a proposed $15.1 million addition for nursing space at the Rapid City center.
The difference in tuition is roughly $100 per credit hour — approximately $350 at BHSU-Rapid City vs. approximately $250 at the six traditional campuses — and that adds up to several thousand dollars more for the students who complete the 50 credits of courses at BHSU-Rapid City that can be used for the 120-credit nursing degree.
However, it’s not a straight $5,000, Johnson explained, because students at the traditional campuses pay fees while the BHSU-Rapid City students don’t, making the actual gap about $60 per credit hour — still sizable at roughly $3,000.
Johnson noted that officials at Monument Health, the Black Hills’ major provider, said they could hire as many graduates as the expanded program could produce. She also cited a study projecting South Dakota would have the nation’s third-worst shortage of nurses by 2030.
Representative Randy Gross challenged her, asking what’s going to get the students to enroll? Applied health sciences growth via BHSU provides a feeder program for the nursing program, Johnson replied. She said the renamed West River Health Science Center is the foundation that will start the ball rolling for student enrollment.
President Nichols said there’s “a very well-developed recruitment plan” that she’d be willing to share. Gross, a retired banker, accepted her offer. “We’ll provide it all to you,” Nichols said.
Senator Jean Hunhoff said she “absolutely” agreed the program was needed. But Hunhoff, who spent her career in nursing, said there were about 19,000 nurses licensed in South Dakota, with about 14,000 practicing in the state and 3,000 working outside South Dakota.
Hunhoff called for a comprehensive plan from the various public and private nursing-education programs in South Dakota before the 2022 session ends in late March. She said there has been an “ebb and flow” in nursing numbers in South Dakota in recent decades.
Representative Chris Karr returned to the tuition difference. He asked, “Who picks up the cost they no longer are bearing?” President Nichols replied, “It’s economy of scale.”
Growing to 100 students from 40 and delivering classes to 40 students versus 10 or 15. “Primarily how we absorb it is through growth,” she added.
Karr wanted to see a plan too. Hunhoff asked what the loss would total if tuition was reduced. Heather Forney, the regents vice president for finance and administration, stepped in. “We are just not competitive,” Forney said. She said the six universities’ tuition and fees are “just so incredibly complex” and a review was under way.
The centers would never have sufficient enrollment at the self-support rate, Forney said. Karr ventured that maybe too much was charged in the first place. Forney said distance courses no longer were required to charge the self-support rate.
That’s when Senator Ryan Maher, who brought the idea for the universities’ self-review to the committee, spoke. “The legislature set that up, all those years ago,” he said, “So we charged a higher rate, because we wanted it to be self-supporting—and it hasn’t.”
The centers, Maher said, “were built to fail.”