PIERRE — Fall enrollment at each of South Dakota's six public universities took another drop in 2019, with its largest overall percentage decrease in 20 years, according to the state Board of Regents.

The BOR reported a 3.41 percent drop in total headcount at the state's six public universities, with the total at 34,520 students compared to 35,737 reported in fall 2018. It is the first time there has been a decrease of 3 percent or more since 1999 and it is the lowest total number of students since 2009, when there were 33,779 students.

“South Dakota’s unemployment rate remains low, and we have a strong job market. That results in some students choosing work over education, especially if they struggle to find the financial resources to attend college,” said Paul Beran, the regents’ executive director and CEO, in a statement. “South Dakota lacks a stable source of state-level, need-based financial aid. In our work with the governor and state legislators, we’ll continue to stress that such support is critical to make higher education a reality for more students.”

The state's largest school — South Dakota State University — saw enrollment slip to 11,518, a 4.9 percent decrease from 12,107 in 2018. Black Hills State University and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology also each saw a decrease of more than 4 percent, while Dakota State University had a 3.37 percent decrease. The University of South Dakota had a 1.45 percent decrease — the lowest of the six universities — but fell below the 10,000-student mark to 9,920. Northern State University had a 1.89 percent decrease.

The system's full-time equivalent students, a figure which is based on the total credit hours generated by all students, was down by 789.1 students, a 3.02 percent decrease. Northern State (5.01 percent), Black Hills State (4.76 percent) and SDSU (4.08 percent) each experienced the largest decreases.

SDSU President Barry Dunn said the university will look to adjust its overall university budget to reflect a smaller enrollment, and "continue to find efficiencies that still allow our students the opportunity for the academic excellence they expect." He noted SDSU's four-year graduation rate went up by 6 percent and the school's retention rate continues to climb.

“It is a difficult balance to maintain in today’s higher education climate,” Dunn said in a statement. “On one side we are achieving the goals set forth by the South Dakota Board of Regents and the state of South Dakota to graduate students on time and with less college debt. On the other hand, as we get them into the workforce more quickly, it is impacting the overall enrollment picture of the university.”