College at a crossroads: A costly shift to online learning

This is the first in a three-part series.

Andrew Ward at Mines.jpeg
School of Mines student Andrew Ward overcame a COVID-19 infection and a shift to some online classes during his fall semester, but is happy with how things are going on the path to an engineering degree. (Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch)

Colleges and universities across South Dakota were facing long-range financial, logistical and access challenges even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Enrollment was falling, state financial support for public universities was dropping, and rising tuition led to high loan burdens for many students and reduced access to obtaining a degree for some low-income and minority families.

Beyond creating immediate health concerns on campuses, the pandemic has exacerbated those troubling trends, and has put higher education in America and South Dakota at a crossroads — presaging a time when fundamental decisions must be made about how higher education is delivered and consumed, how it is paid for and who is able to attend.

On the health front, university and college leaders across South Dakota are declaring the fall 2020 semester a victory, as in-person classes were held and relatively few students, faculty or staff became infected with the coronavirus.

But the pandemic caused upheaval in other ways. It hastened a shift to online learning; reduced access to higher education by low-income and minority students; and reduced revenues by the millions.


Overall enrollment in the South Dakota public university system in fall 2020 dropped by 2.84%, and private colleges reported similar declines, including a 7% drop at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. Administrators were generally pleased that the 2020 declines weren’t greater.

“We’re just preparing to see what this new world looks like to us now, and some pieces of that equation we’re not ready to fill in just yet,” said Brian Maher, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents. “This is the beginning of the puzzle of what the pandemic will do to us, not only from an instructional-delivery standpoint, but [also] a students-on-campus standpoint, and ultimately from a revenue standpoint.”

Colleges and universities saw a great migration of students to online education during the pandemic, which state data shows is a continuation of a larger trend.

Board of Regents data show a 10% drop in face-to-face learning in the regental system from fall 2019 to fall 2020. But from 2016 to 2020, face-to-face enrollment fell by about 18.3%, or 5,500 students, from 29,710 to 24,278.

Regental data also show a sharp rise in students who enrolled in an online course in the past year and over the past five years. The system saw 27,504 students enrolled in a distance-learning course in fall 2020, a 59% jump over fall 2019 and a 66% rise since fall 2016.

The Regents created an online option in 2000 when they initiated the “Electronic University Consortium” that sought to offer statewide distance learning aimed at providing new opportunities for “place-bound, adult and otherwise non-traditional learners.”

But now, online learning has grown into a viable option for all students, including traditional incoming freshmen who choose to live at home and for on-campus students who take online courses in addition to in-person classes.

Just as a decline in overall enrollment reduces college revenues, the shift to online learning carries its own revenue challenges. Students who do not live on campus cost universities about 40% of the revenue obtained from students who live, eat and park on campus. At the University of South Dakota, which saw its overall enrollment drop by 5.8% from 2016 to 2020, the university saw face-to-face enrollment drop by 15.7% over that time frame.


At USD, a full-time on-campus student pays about $18,560 in tuition, fees, room and board, while an online student does not pay the roughly $8,000 for housing and a meal plan. In South Dakota, per-credit tuition for online courses is about $85 higher than for in-person courses, but the higher rate — even at 30 credits a year and $2,500 more in annual tuition — does not nearly make up for the lost housing and meal revenues, resulting in a potential $25 million revenue reduction systemwide per year.

Black Hills State University in Spearfish, a liberal arts and teacher’s college, saw overall enrollment fall by 15.0% in the past five years (4,244 to 3,608), but had the greatest shift away from face-to-face learning in the system, losing 27.7% of its face-to-face enrollment over that time (3,468 to 2,507).

Providing options for an increasing number of students who want to learn online while meeting the need for consistent revenues is likely to be more difficult over time, said BHSU President Laurie Nichols.

“The competition coming to us online is pretty fierce right now and there are many, many students that are opting to do more of their education online,” Nichols said. It’s a balancing act and it’s probably one of the greatest challenges we have in higher education leadership today … figuring out how do we balance those two somewhat competing forces.”

Maher said the loss of “auxiliary” revenues from housing, meals and event attendance could create a significant drain on the university system if the trend toward online learning continues as expected after the pandemic subsides. Businesses in cities where universities are located will also see lost business if the online shift continues or picks up pace.

“What does it mean to us if enrollment continues to go down or if our students aren’t learning on campus?” Maher said. “What does it mean to us in terms of lost revenue from a housing perspective, from a meal-plan perspective, from an attendance at athletic events perspective? There are a lot of pieces that go into that auxiliary budget that are still unknown, and we don’t know the impact of those losses yet.”

Instructors and students say that teaching and learning by computer over the internet added another stressor during the pandemic, especially for professors who were not familiar with teaching remotely and students unfamiliar with online learning.

Almost all colleges and universities in South Dakota took steps to provide safe in-person learning by requiring or urging use of masks, creating additional space for social distancing and reducing class sizes through hybrid courses.


Research into the effectiveness of online learning remains unsettled, though some students and instructors question whether something critical is lost by not holding classes in person.

“It’s no secret students don’t learn as well online,” Augustana student Jenifer Fjelstad, a 20-year-old junior journalism and French major, wrote to News Watch in an email. “Online learning feels like going through the motions to get an assignment done or get a certain grade, but in-person learning lets me lean into my natural interest about the subject and really learn.”

Dakota State University professor Mark Geary, president of the statewide faculty union, had experience with teaching online before the pandemic and said he had success doing so during the fall.

But Geary acknowledged that online teaching is “a complicated process to do it well and keep everyone engaged.”

Geary said some students would get distracted by roommates playing loud music or playing video games that ate up bandwidth and reduced connectivity. Geary and others also lament that online learning reduces the personal connection between teacher and student that can lead to educational breakthroughs.

“It’s really challenging to build your student relationships in your online classes,” he said.

He noted that given the uncertainty of the pandemic, the rapid shift to online teaching and the fact that some students were in quarantine at times, he shifted his grading standards down somewhat.

Some administrators and students said online learning eliminates critical elements of the traditional on-campus experience, such as learning to live and work with others, including peers from diverse backgrounds, and networking opportunities and relationship-building that can aid in career advancement later.


Shifting too far toward online learning could also lessen the value of some degrees, particularly those that require students to have hands-on, experiential learning, said Barry Dunn, president of South Dakota State University.

Dunn said he believes the use of technology will continue to expand in college courses but will never supersede the value of in-person, on-campus teaching in many subject areas.

“You want your nurse to have gone through a nursing program with hands-on clinical experiences, right? That’s just fundamental,” Dunn said. “I’d personally rather have somebody designing a bridge who had worked in face-to-face courses.”

But online learning has some advantages.

South Dakota Mines engineering student Andrew Ward, 20, said he found hybrid courses to be the most effective, but added that he benefited from online lessons that allowed him to go back and review tapes of lectures on concepts he didn’t fully understand the first time around.

Administrators said the pandemic may heighten interest among students who want to live and learn on campus. They also think experience teaching remotely during the pandemic will lead to more use of technology that enhances rather than replaces in-person learning.

Ben Iverson, enrollment director at Augustana, said many students still favor on-campus learning.

"That will continue to be the core of what we do here at Augustana,” Iverson said, “even if at times we integrate or blend technology into the teaching experience.”

What To Read Next
Get Local