RAPID CITY, S.D. — The South Dakota Board of Regents is at last seeing the contours of a cost-cutting campaign that has stretched the better part of two years

The nearly three dozen recommendations of Senate Bill 55's task force stretch from pursuing a single food vendor contract to capping under-enrolled courses to boosting the liberal arts' own benefits as college enrollment remains stagnant.

The Regents announced last month that enrollment was "largely unchanged" since 2020, with Regents Executive Director Brian Maher noting the impact of the ongoing pandemic. The current 33,455 students across six universities is roughly the same population attending schools in 2009.

On Wednesday, Oct. 6, addressing the board in a meeting on the campus of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, Maher pivoted to say he'd seen strong attendance at the public meetings about SB 55. But he characterized concerns heard at the meeting from community members that the cost-cutting measures don't "choke" the system financially.

"One thing we're hearing is it's OK to squeeze and make sure we're using state dollars, as well, as we don't forget we need to look at growing the enterprise, as well," said Maher.

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The draft report was still set to be voted on approval by the Regents at deadline. If approved, the report will be delivered to Gov. Kristi Noem and the Legislature's Joint Committee on Appropriations, according to the statute.

The recommendations could dramatically impact operations for years to come across South Dakota. They detail, for instance, combining human resource functions between Black Hills State University and SD Mines, overhauling the purpose of the enrollment-flagging Community College of Sioux Falls, and coalescing two nursing programs in Rapid City,

Maher and Board of Regents staff have toured the state, so far introducing proposed recommendations from South Dakota State University's campus in Brookings to BHSU's campus in Spearfish.

Last week in Spearfish, a former legislator challenged Maher and staff to raise the per-university funding for BHSU. Heather Forney, system vice president of finance & administration, promised new recommendations would address per-school funding.

The 68-page document, now posted to the board's website, does contain a recommendation to review funding models to discover if they're "equitable and sustainable." Specifically, the task force's report noted that there was not "equal funding" per student across universities.

While noting inequities exist in funding, the report argues that measuring the universities exclusively on an FTE basis is "an oversimplification of a complex issue."

Respective potential cuts to curriculum, the report calls for colleges to set an 18% cap for offering courses "with low enrollment," acknowledging that many of these courses are internships, graduate-level workshops, or "studio" courses, such as in art class, that typically require lower student-to-faculty ratios.

But the task force called for institutions to find a way to end duplicative online courses, noting some institutions share online offerings for German and physics coursework.

The process, spanning six meetings of the large task force and nearly two dozen subcommittee meetings comprising business leaders, legislators, and college personnel, has spurred consternation among college towns, faculty, and staff who've feared overreach from Pierre at the behest of a Joint Committee on Appropriations that's been increasingly hostile toward perceived liberal bias in higher education.

The new plan appears to take into consideration this political challenge, encouraging frequent conversations "with key legislators outside of legislative session."