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University Center looks to expand, refocus 2-year degrees

SIOUX FALLS -- A Sioux Falls-based educational center that offers classes from South Dakota's public universities is looking to expand and refocus its offering of two-year associate degrees, partly in response to industry's desire for a more high...

SIOUX FALLS - A Sioux Falls-based educational center that offers classes from South Dakota's public universities is looking to expand and refocus its offering of two-year associate degrees, partly in response to industry's desire for a more highly educated workforce.

The state's four technical schools, which report to their respective boards, meet the demand for career and technical certificates and associate of applied science degrees, said Michael Rush, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents.

But the regents are looking to refocus the mission of University Center-Sioux Falls, which has seen a drop in enrollment over the past five years, on two-year associate of arts and associate of science degrees that would be easily transferrable to four-year institutions, Rush said. The changes could serve as a model for the state's other university centers in Rapid City and Pierre.

"We're specifically working on that piece of the market, because the technical piece is pretty well served with our technical colleges," he said.

Better and more diverse postsecondary educational offerings ranging from technical certificates to PhDs will help in creating a well-trained and educated workforce so that South Dakota can compete nationally and globally for workers, according to Rich Naser Jr., executive director of the South Dakota Technology Business Center.

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"Your opportunities are to train and educate and retain your existing, or attract new in," Naser said. "The workforce is really one of our absolute keys to our future."

Brooke Murray, a 20-year-old administrative assistant pursuing an associate in business administration degree through Dakota State University, said she chose to attend University Center because it allows her to attend evening classes without having to make the 55-mile trek to the main campus.

Murray, who also is a budding photographer, said she may choose to eventually go for a four-year degree "depending on where life takes me."

"The two-year degree is my start," Murray said. "Right now, it's going to take me a while to finish it."

South Dakota has never had a public community college system, though U.S. Census data shows the state outpaces all but one of its bordering states for its percentage of residents with associate degrees.

The regents recently formed a task force to look at how schools can offer community college-type services using the state's existing institutions. The discussions were underway months before Kilian Community College, a Sioux Falls private nonprofit, announced it would close its doors in May 2016 after 39 years.

University Center's refocus is part of a larger effort to refine its governance and role in the community, executive director Craig Johnson said. It offers associate in general studies degrees from the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University and Dakota State University, but Johnson said that might be scaled back to one school.

Its most popular workforce-related associate degrees are offered through DSU in business management, health information technology, network and system administration and respiratory care. Offerings from Black Hills State University in tourism and hospitality and from Northern State University in applied gerontology and banking and financial services have drawn fewer students.

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Two-year degrees are important offerings, as studies have shown that to keep students engage and moving toward a goal, they need to have success along the way, said Jeff Holcomb, president of Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls. He thinks both University Center and the state's technical schools can have their niches.

"We are designed to prepare the individual to enter the workforce, whereas the associate degree at University Center is designed to transfer on," he said.

Holcomb added that Southeast Tech is open to accepting transfer credits from University Center, and he hopes the inverse will be true.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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