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MERCER: Students carry load at state universities without state's help

PIERRE -- South Dakota students pay some of the highest tuition and fees for public campuses in the region. Yet the financial aid available to assist students lags far behind neighboring states.

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Earlier this year, the Legislature and Gov. Dennis Daugaard took a rare step. The universities received additional funding to avoid raising tuition and fees for South Dakota residents.

The Board of Regents, whose members govern the system, meet Wednesday and Thursday in Pierre to set the system's next round of budget requests.

The dilemma the regents face in the next few days is whether to ask again.

The student leadership had accepted higher tuition and fees in the past two decades because the Legislature didn't provide enough funding to keep pace.

Students paid extra, for example, so the universities could offer higher salaries that drew faculty closer to levels of pay at public universities in neighboring states.

And students paid higher fees, campus by campus, so they could have better facilities where they eat meals and work out and study.

The tuition and fees freeze for the fall 2014 and spring 2015 semesters marked a turning point.

If the regents don't ask, the governor and the Legislature likely won't consider continuing the freeze for a second year.

Funding previously was so tight from the Legislature that the universities have immense backlogs of building maintenance and repairs and other infrastructure needs. They will take several decades and more than $300 million to recover.

Addressing the tuition problem and restoring more of the brick, mortar, heating, cooling and electricity systems leaves little or no money for establishing a better financial aid program to help students.

There's also little or no money left for expansions or new programs in our changing economy and changing state.

A second year of tuition and fees buy-down would cost an estimated $6.8 million. Another $1.7 million is needed to offset what students would otherwise pay in additional costs for support of existing buildings.

The regents will look at seeking $1.7 million to restore some of the buying power of the Opportunity scholarship.

Measured against the cost of two semesters of courses, the $5,000 scholarship's value was 26 percent when it began in 2004 and now is 16 percent.

The proposal presented to the regents calls for setting the scholarship's total value at 20 percent of tuition and fees for 30 credit hours annually over four academic years.

The scholarship is distributed on a four-year basis: $1,000 each of the first three years, followed by $2,000 the fourth year.

The regents again are asked to create a permanent position called director of student preparation to recruit and retain more American Indians to attend the state universities.

Another proposal calls for $2 million of ongoing general funds to pay staff at universities to work on student success, better assist veterans and broaden students' training experiences.

The regents also will consider proposals for $21.8 million in one-time general funding.

The regents' decisions are step one. Next is winning the governor's recommendations. The test comes in January through March when legislators put together the new budget.