SIOUX FALLS — A gift from Premiere Bankcard and T. Denny Sanford will establish a new scholarship program aimed at supporting need-based students at South Dakota universities, officials announced Wednesday afternoon on the campus of Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls.

The initial gift of $50 million will be administered through the South Dakota Community Foundation, and with additional financial support, is expected to grow to $200 million, creating an endowment that will fund future scholarships to eight South Dakota higher education institutions in perpetuity. The fund will be known as the Premier Scholarship.

“We’re the only state in the nation without a need-based scholarship program,” said Miles Beacom, CEO of Premier Bankcard. “It’s not that we haven’t tried. For over a decade in Pierre our legislators and higher education team have continued to look for a way to implement a need-based scholarship and were unsuccessful. Last year, the senate unanimously approved legislation for a need-based scholarship. Unfortunately we didn’t have the money to fund it.”

Gov. Kristi Noem praised the the formation for the Premier Scholarship and pledged to request an additional $50 million from the South Dakota Legislature to support the program. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)
Gov. Kristi Noem praised the the formation for the Premier Scholarship and pledged to request an additional $50 million from the South Dakota Legislature to support the program. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

The new scholarship program will change the lives of many students who may otherwise not have the means to further their career after high school, he said.

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“This is a game-changer,” Beacom said.

Students may qualify for need-based scholarships if they come from low-income backgrounds, with qualification based on family income. The scholarships differ from merit-based college scholarships, which are awarded based on academic, sports or extracurricular achievement and typically do not take finances into account.

Barry Dunn, president of South Dakota State University, said the new scholarship fund will help a student population that has been underserved at the federal level.

“We are serving 1,200 fewer students that qualify for federal student aid than we were 10 years ago. That is not good news for any of us,” Dunn said. “But (T. Denny) Sanford’s amazing gift will help reverse that trend. For business. On behalf of the eight universities and thousands of students who will benefit from this gift for decades to come.”

The scholarship will be made available to all six of the state’s public universities as well as Augustana University and the University of Sioux Falls. The amount of funds available to each university for scholarships will be prorated based upon the enrollment at each school. The schools will receive their allotted funds from the South Dakota Community Foundation, and each university will select their own group of scholarship recipients and will directly disburse money to those eligible students. The program will be reviewed in five years, with expansion to more schools a possibility. Premier is also donating $5 million to be awarded in the 2022-23 academic year.

Gov. Kristi Noem and Dana Dykhouse, CEO of First Premier Bank, talk following the announcement of the Premier Scholarship on the campus of Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls Wednesday. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)
Gov. Kristi Noem and Dana Dykhouse, CEO of First Premier Bank, talk following the announcement of the Premier Scholarship on the campus of Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls Wednesday. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

The scholarships come with the requirement that recipients work in South Dakota for three years. If they decide not to pursue work in the state, the scholarship becomes a loan.

One of the most important aspects of the program is keeping skilled workers from leaving the state for opportunities elsewhere in the country, said Gov. Kristi Noem.

"We have a lot of businesses wanting to move to South Dakota right now. The problem they always bring up is the workforce. We wonder if we will have the people to fill the positions,” Noem said.

Noem said she plans to ask the South Dakota Legislature to fund an additional $50 million for the program, as well, in addition to paying off $21 in bonds issued in 2010 for improvement at technical colleges in the state.

“Today’s announcement is historic for South Dakota and will help us retain talented young people in our state for generations,” said Noem. “We’ve identified the need for this type of scholarship for years, and I'm asking the legislature to match this incredibly generous gift so that we can continue to make South Dakota stronger for our kids and grandkids.”

Beacom said the partnership of private and public funds makes the program unique.

“It’s something that will continue to really help South Dakota do things that other states haven’t been able to do. Between Build Dakota and this, if you look at it isn’t not all public money, it’s a public and private partnership. And that’s the thing that I think is just phenomenal,” Beacom told the Mitchell Republic following the presentation.

The program will be modeled after the Build Dakota Scholarship Program, which officials have touted as highly successful and a model for other programs around the country.

“While this is a historic announcement for education, it shouldn’t overshadow the very real impact that the Build Dakota Scholarship is having in our state every day,” said Dana Dykhouse, CEO for First Premier Bank. “The Build Dakota Scholarship has allowed us to see first-hand how successful a program can be when you create the right partnerships between the private sector, education institutions and governments. It’s why we recently announced another investment in Build Dakota and why we modeled the Premier Scholarship Fund in the same fashion.”

Miles Beacom, left, CEO of Premier Bankcard, speaks with audience members following the announcement of the  formation of the Premier Scholarship, a need-based scholarship fund. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)
Miles Beacom, left, CEO of Premier Bankcard, speaks with audience members following the announcement of the formation of the Premier Scholarship, a need-based scholarship fund. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

The Build Dakota Scholarship Fund was formed in 2015 out of an initial investment of $50 million, with $22.5 million contributed from Denny Sanford for scholarships, $25 million contributed from Gov. Dennis Daugaard invested with the South Dakota Community Foundation as an endowment and another $2.5 million contribution from Sanford invested in a marketing campaign aimed at improving perception of technical education.

The objectives of the fund are to provide scholarships for students in technical careers, change perceptions of technical careers, promote scholarship matches among industry partners and keep South Dakota’s workforce in South Dakota.

Over the last five years, the fund has supported 1,900 students by providing the opportunity to become skilled, debt-free employees in South Dakota and provided more than 300 scholarships per year.

Over the next five years, the fund has secured an $8 million annual scholarship through a $2 million per year endowment fund from Gov. Daugaard, 10 $5,000 scholarships per year from the Mike Rowe Foundation, $2 million per year from industry partners, $2 million per year from Sanford and other philanthropists and $2 million from Gov. Kristi Noem.

Dunn said the importance of higher education and making it accessible to more students is evident in the work being done on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, with health workers tending to the sick, teachers rearranging their schedules and curriculums to best serve their students and scientists working to develop a vaccine.

This new scholarship fund will help spread that success to students in even more fields to the benefit of everyone, he said.

“The skills and knowledge and preparedness we admire in those professionals were learned at the eight universities represented today. Never have the benefits of higher education been more on display than during this pandemic,” Dunn said. “We need to provide assistance to low income students so they can pursue their dreams. They make our state, region and world stronger.”