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Higher ed no bargain in SD

PIERRE — South Dakota’s public universities and public technical institutes aren’t a bargain for South Dakota residents to attend, according to statistical reports and anecdotal evidence presented to the state’s new Council on Higher Education.

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Total costs for a full-time undergraduate student who was a South Dakota resident attending one of the six state campuses averaged $13,529 in 2013. That was third-highest in the eight-state region, behind only Minnesota and Iowa.

Meanwhile, the four technical institutes are generally much more expensive than similar schools in Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota and consequently have difficulty competing in recruiting students, state and local officials said.

They said another challenge is that wages paid by businesses for some high-demand occupations such as diesel mechanics are so high that the technical institutes face trouble keeping faculty members.

The universities and tech schools became more and more expensive during the past decade. The Legislature’s financial support didn’t keep up with rising costs at the universities, such as for payroll and health insurance, and that shifted more cost onto students.

In 2002, state general fund support from the Legislature provided 57 percent of the educational and general funds for the university system, while students paid the other 43 percent. By 2012 that ratio had flipped, with the Legislature giving only 38 percent and students paying 62 percent.

The tech schools, meanwhile, engaged in a building program that jacked state fees from $16 per credit hour in 2009 to $29 for the current academic year. The facility fee rose to $25 from $14 and the maintenance and repair fee went up to $3 from $2.

The South Dakota tech schools have the highest tuition and fees in the eight-state region, according to Deb Shephard, president of Lake Area Technical Institute at Watertown.

She told other council members at their meeting Wednesday that many South Dakota students enroll at campuses in neighboring states where their education will cost less.

She added that companies often are willing to underwrite tuition if students promise to take jobs with the companies afterward.

“Where it hurts the state, though, is if those kids don’t come back,” Shephard said. “That’s a huge issue for us.”

Last summer, the Board of Regents, whose members govern the state universities, declared the system’s top budget priority to be a freeze on tuition and fees.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard heard that call and recommended in his budget speech earlier this month that tuition and fees be frozen for the coming academic year starting in fall 2014 for undergraduate students attending classes on a state university campus.

Daugaard also proposed a similar freeze for the technical institutes, which are managed as part of their local school districts and are under the general supervision of the state Board of Education.

Muth Electric, based at Mitchell, recruits from neighboring states as well as South Dakota, according to Terry Sabers. He is the vice president for finance at the company and a member of the state Board of Education.

He said sometimes the students’ tuition bills get paid while they are in classes and sometimes their student loans get paid afterward.

“We’ve recruited all the way through the recession,” Sabers said. “The heat is on.”

To what degree price has hurt South Dakota’s competitiveness isn’t immediately clear.

The universities have steadily increased their production of students receiving undergraduate degrees in recent years. The Watertown, Mitchell and Sioux Falls technical institutes have generated more graduates while the Rapid City school has stayed steady.

The percentages of those graduates who have jobs or are continuing their educations in South Dakota are 94 to 97 percent for the technical institutes, depending on the year.

The numbers aren’t as strong for the universities. They show 69 percent to 73 percent placement, depending on the year, for graduates who were South Dakota residents when they began classes and 29 to 33 percent for non-residents.