South Dakota public universities see drop in overall enrollment

DWU records near-record enrollment, Mitchell Tech holding steady

Dakota Wesleyan University is cancelling its homecoming parade for 2020 and will instead hold a Spirit Cruise as an alternative to the annual event.

Public universities in South Dakota saw a drop in enrollment for the fall 2020 semester, with nearly 1,000 fewer students enrolled at the six major schools governed by the South Dakota Board of Regents, according to statistics from the state.

Statistics from the board of regents indicate that 33,566 total students were enrolled at public universities in the state this fall, including Black Hills State University, Dakota State University, Northern State University, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota. That number is down from 34,520 from fall in 2019.

The numbers reflect a trend that shows a 8.1% drop in enrollment at public universities since 2016, and a 2.76% drop from last year.

Of the six schools, only Northern State University in Aberdeen saw an increase in students, jumping up slightly from 3,427 students in 2019 to 3,431 in 2020. The rest showed slight to moderate declines, with Black Hills State going from 3,858 in 2019 to 3,608, Dakota State going from 3,268 to 3,186, School of Mines & Technology going from 2,539 to 2,477, South Dakota State going from 11,518 to 11,405 and the University of South Dakota dropping from 9,920 to 9,459.

While enrollment numbers can fluctuate based on a number of factors, COVID-19 is likely the biggest contributor to reduced numbers. But students still value a solid college education even in the face of a global pandemic, said Brian Maher, executive director and CEO of the South Dakota Board of Regents.


“Across the country, these are challenging and uncertain times for public higher education,” Maher said in a statement. “Our universities prepared for the likelihood that the pandemic would impact fall enrollments, so a reduction of about 700 full-time students was not unexpected. We are pleased that so many students and their families are placing a priority on university education in these exceptional times. We offer a special thanks to our faculty and staff for the dedication, support and willingness to adapt.”

The board of regents earlier this year established a mask requirement for those on the campuses of the six public universities in the state in an effort to reduce the spread of the deadly respiratory disease, which struck the world in early 2020 and has since killed over 1 million people around the globe. Social distancing protocols are also in place at the six schools.

Some other schools have seen slight increases or have held steady in student enrollment.

Dakota Wesleyan University

At Dakota Wesleyan University, fall enrollment for 2020 is up to 948, which is a significant increase from fall of 2019, when there were 873 enrolled. The 948 this year is just one short of 2018, when 949 students were enrolled, a record high for the size of the DWU student body.

The increase in enrollment is partially due to the quality education experience the school provides its students, said Fredel Thomas, vice president of admissions and marketing for DWU.

“The perseverance and adaptability of our admissions department, athletic coaches, directors, student life staff — and really our entire campus community — ultimately attributed to such a positive incoming class,” Thomas told the Mitchell Republic. “Our focus has always been, and always will be on giving students an opportunity to further their education in a place that recognizes their individual strengths and goals, and that didn’t change this year.”

A total of 318 incoming students joined DWU this year across all programs, which is up from 285 in 2019. In addition, 223 incoming freshmen and transfer students arrived on campus in 2020, another increase from 209 in 2019.

Staff at DWU worked to maintain lines of communication with prospective students over the summer, she said.


“We spent time this summer preparing and maintaining communication and reassuring them in order to get the semester off the ground in a face-to-face but safe environment,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the commitment of DWU to return to in-person classes this fall likely played a role in keeping potential students as well as attracting a few more from graduating high school students who had moved to online learning last spring but did not enjoy the experience. Virtual learning options are effective for some students, but others do not respond as well to the format, she said.

A mask requirement and social distancing measures have been implemented at the school, which allowed students and teachers to return to the classroom for in-person learning.

“(Some students’) experience with eLearning, some were great with it and some not so great. It was not their style of learning, so what do we have to do to be in class? We had to do a lot of communication to get ready for the students and then bring them back,” Thomas said.

Thomas also cited the Nonprofit Church Leadership graduate program, which spans six states, as a draw for potential students. The 43 pastors and ministry leaders involved in the program are up from 21 members this past spring.

The good numbers have been energizing for the DWU family, she said.

“We’re just so thankful for every day that we get to be here. It’s not necessarily a given, so we’re thankful to our students and everybody who is doing what they need to do to keep this community safe,” Thomas said.

Amy Novak, president of DWU, said in a press release that the rise in enrollment can be attributed to the extensive preparation the school has done to ensure a positive and safe educational experience for its students.


“These numbers really are a testament to the months of preparation contributed by multiple task forces to get this semester off the ground successfully, while preparing an environment that is working to safeguard the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff. Students are grateful for the opportunity to be back in the learning environment and participating in co-curricular activities,” Novak said.

Mitchell Tech new logo 2020.jpg

Mitchell Technical College

At Mitchell Technical College, enrollment numbers are holding relatively steady with 1,184 students enrolled for the fall 2020 semester. That is down slightly from 1,191 from this time last year, but Julie Brookbank, vice president for advancement at Mitchell Tech, said the enrollment numbers are encouraging in light of current challenges in education, such as the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our entire admissions and enrollment division worked so hard and they were so pleased to see those numbers,” Brookbank said. “It also speaks to our excellent retention, those who wanted to stay in school and returned for a second year. We were hopeful not to have a decline and have essentially a nearly stable enrollment from the previous years, which was something we very much welcomed.”

She said a decline in enrollment would not have been unexpected.

“It would not have been much of a surprise, and in the summer we were bracing for it,” Brookbank said.

Brookbank said factors such as not requiring students to live in a dorm and the school’s efforts to maintain in-person classes as opposed to virtual offerings likely played a part in helping Mitchell Tech sustain its enrollment numbers. Coupled with the school’s high placement rate in the job markets kept Mitchell Tech an appealing and affordable option for students looking to continue their educational careers.


“I think our long track record of high placement in industry careers is appealing, particularly with how the economy was looking in spring and summer,” Brookbank said. “I think the differential between a 1- and 2-year program and a 4-year program is appealing to a lot of students. Your investment is well worth it.”

Brookbank said the school tries to maintain an enrollment of around 1,200 to balance the number of students with facilities and faculty availability. That can be a challenge with school leaders striving to provide a quality education while balancing needs and resources.

Brookbank expects Mitchell Tech will continue to deliver in that role, despite the challenges that come with the pandemic. Hopefully, the disease will diminish in impact on life, business and education in the near future.

“I think that we’re well-positioned. A lot of the occupations for which we provide education are already in high demand. We don’t see them aging out, as people need homes constructed and wired and heating and cooling, health care and energy, and we are well-placed with these programs,” Brookbank said. “Our students and faculty have done an excellent job of integrating safety protocols. They’re abiding by it. If you want to come to campus, this is how we do it. Maybe we’ll get to the place where (COVID-19) is not our primary consideration.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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