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Regents face big changes in university enrollments

PIERRE -- The state Board of Regents whose members govern South Dakota's public universities plan significant discussions this week about balancing the system's long-term finances and enrollments trends.

PIERRE - The state Board of Regents whose members govern South Dakota's public universities plan significant discussions this week about balancing the system's long-term finances and enrollments trends.

The six universities as a whole have increasingly turned to non-resident students to cover debt and operating expenses while students increasingly select distance education courses.

At the same time the regents want to play a larger role in helping South Dakota's businesses and workforce fill their economic potential.

One step the regents will consider Wednesday is formally adopting a goal that 65 percent of South Dakotans ages 25-34 would have at least a certificate or other post-secondary credential by the year 2025.

The regents provisionally approved the goal in October. The long-range purpose is to gradually build the workforce's capacity.

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Currently 45 percent of the workforce ages 25-64 have a bachelor degree, associate degree or professional degree. Another 22 percent have some college coursework.

The regents also will consider adding an audit committee as a formal arm of the full board, with possibly some outside financial experts serving on it too.

That panel would receive more financial details than the board has been getting.

Another discussion would focus on enrollment trends and campus investments for buildings such as residence halls and student centers.

On-campus enrollments as a whole fell 911 students from fall 2010 to fall 2015 while on-campus students taking distance courses climbed by 587, or 40.9 percent, to 2,073 during the same period.

The report to the regents states:

"We have become more dependent on non-resident students to fill our residence halls and to pay the fees to support student unions and wellness centers. The campuses have done an excellent job in replacing a declining number of residents with non-resident students.

"This trend also makes us more vulnerable when other states lower cost, add incentives to keep their students in state or grow their scholarship base."

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For the fall 2010 to fall 2015 period, two campuses saw enrollments grow. South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City increased 13.7 percent to 2,436. University of South Dakota at Vermillion rose 1.9 percent to 5,757.

Four campuses saw enrollments decline. Black Hills State University at Spearfish fell 21.9 percent to 1,927. Northern State University at Aberdeen dropped 17.9 percent to 1,495.

South Dakota State University at Brookings slipped by 5 percent to 8,979. Dakota State University at Madison essentially held even, seeing a 0.1 percent loss to 1,176.

The longer-term threat is that enrollment losses would affect the university system's ability to repay its bonded indebtedness for past construction projects.

The system places 11 percent of tuition in what's known as the Higher Education Facilities Fund, or HEFF, for campus projects. A full-time student currently pays $916 per year for bond debt, maintenance and repair. A distance-education student pays about $115 on each course for the same purposes.

The report notes that a 1 percent loss in credit hours would cost the system about $272,000 annually in HEFF revenue and that would accumulate to more than $4.6 million by 2030.

That report concludes with a reminder that a decision to invest more in campus building through debt is a 25-year commitment and advises that understanding changing demographics and demand for distance education must be considered.

"Given the current trends," that report ends, "a traditional campus will look very different in twenty-five years."

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The regents are meeting in Pierre from Tuesday evening through Thursday in their annual planning session.

The full agenda is at www.sdbor.edu .

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