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SDBOR sets goal to solve state's workforce 'critical' issues

South Dakota Board of Regents President Bob Sutton speaks during a town meeting on South Dakota public higher education on Tuesday morning at the Technology Center on Mitchell Technical Institute's campus in Mitchell. (Sara Bertsch / Republic) 1 / 2
Bryan Hisel, executive director for the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce and Mitchell Area Development Corporation, asks a question during a town meeting on South Dakota's higher education on Tuesday morning in the Technology Center on Mitchell Technical Institute's Campus. (Sara Bertsch / Republic)2 / 2

South Dakota's workforce has reached a critical point, officials say, and the entire education system will need to work together to address it.

During a town hall meeting Tuesday morning on Mitchell Technical Institute's campus, officials with the South Dakota Board of Regents (SDBOR) met and discussed with locals the role of higher education in South Dakota's future. The town hall was one of four meetings scheduled by the SDBOR.

"The workforce challenges that we have in this state, not just in Mitchell, not just in Sioux Falls, not just in Watertown or Rapid City, but across the state, are reaching a point where they are getting to be very, very critical," said SDBOR President Bob Sutton.

To help meet these challenges, the SDBOR has set a goal that 65 percent of South Dakotans — from ages 25-34 — be holding postsecondary credential by 2025, ranging from technical certificates and apprenticeships to associate, bachelor or graduate degrees.

The goal, set about a year ago according to Sutton, will be achieved with the help of the SDBOR's "true partners," which includes the state's private institutions and technical schools. And in Mitchell, this includes Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell Tech and the Mitchell School District.

"We can't do the things we need to move this state forward from an economic development perspective without the partnerships we have with all levels of institutions in our state," Sutton said.

The 2025 goal is based on projections from another study that found 65 percent of all jobs in South Dakota will require some level of postsecondary education by 2020, according to SDBOR executive director Mike Rush. And if the regental system is going to achieve its 2025 goal, strategies such as enacting proactive admission, revising general education core to allow easier transfers and improving student retention will need to be in place.

Other strategies offered by Rush included increasing first-year enrollment of traditional age students and marketing to non-traditional students and other students with credits.

"Higher education has more influence on economic prosperity than everything else combined," Rush said. "We have an opportunity to capitalize on this resource and make South Dakota a destination for businesses and families who seek the benefits of a well educated populace and workforce."

The annual economic impact education has on South Dakota is one of the reasons the town hall meetings were hosted, Rush said, adding that the state's public universities increase South Dakota's gross domestic product by $2.66 billion a year.

Retention still an issue in South Dakota

Following Rush and Sutton's speeches, the Mitchell audience — which included officials with Mitchell Tech, Dakota Wesleyan, Mitchell School District and several area business — peppered the two SDBOR representatives with questions regarding online coursework, how students choose a field to study and international student enrollment.

But the biggest issue faced in South Dakota's education system was brought up by Mitchell Area Development Corporation Executive Director Bryan Hisel, who asked about the challenges in retention and graduation rates.

"You identified an absolute critical problem and challenge we've been dealing with," Sutton said. "The facts are graduation rates are not good. We recruit students and we lose them for variety of reasons."

Sutton said these reasons range from school affordability to simply flunking out of classes. To avoid this, Sutton said implementing better advising programs at institutions and early intervention is key. Also identifying specific skills students don't understand in a course and then helping solve the problem, rather than allowing students to fail the entire semester course, is another solution.

But Sutton said retention rate "simply has to get better." And both Sutton and Rush said it's important not to have any "finger pointing" among education entities, and instead work together to solve the state's workforce issues.

"We're all in this together," Rush said. "We've all got challenges that we've got to solve together. Every student comes to the table with unique challenges, and it takes the entire system to work together to solve this. I think we have good partnerships to achieve that."