By Bob Mercer
State Capitol Bureau
Enrollments at South Dakota’s public universities rose in recent years because more people took off-campus courses, while the numbers of students physically attending classes declined system-wide in 2011 and again in 2012, according to a new report prepared for the state Board of Regents.
The regents, who govern the state’s higher education system, plan to discuss the enrollment trends Wednesday and Thursday when they meet in Sioux Falls for their annual planning retreat.
The report was prepared by the regents’ central office. It is the first deep look at the numbers behind the record enrollments that have been reported for the system in recent years.
The data show a 42 percent increase since 2007 in students seeking degrees via off-campus courses and a 44 percent gain in other students who took off-campus courses without specific degrees as their targets.
During the same six-year period, on-campus enrollments in total went up just 2 percent. The only significant gain in on-campus students came at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which climbed more than 16 percent to 2,365 students in 2012.
The 2012 enrollments at three campuses – Black Hills State 2,445; Northern State 1,894; and South Dakota State 9,777 – were at the lowest since 2009. The University of South Dakota at 6,116 last year was below where it stood in 2007, while Dakota State 1,277 was up slightly.
Meanwhile, off-campus courses intensified in popularity each of the six years in the analysis, reaching records in 2012 of 6,474 degree-seeking students and 6,081 non-degree seeking.
Jack Warner, the regents’ executive director, said the off-campus growth is a mixture of adults who don’t or can’t make the trips to traditional campuses and students who are on campuses but take on-line courses so they don’t have to go to classes at specific times.
“What this means is there are implications for how we invest our resources,” Warner said in an interview last Friday.
On one hand are traditional considerations such as residence halls, dining facilities and other student amenities on campuses.
On the other hand are technology issues such as sufficient bandwidth to handle streaming video and large data batches, computing power, storage and students’ access to devices.
Two other sets of population trends promise to affect enrollments in the years ahead. In recent years, the state universities have done well with non-resident students from the region. But forecasts show a plateau ahead, while South Dakota looks to see larger classes of high school graduates.
Warner said state universities may want to look to the southwest and west regions of the nation for recruiting non-resident students because of insufficient capacity in places such as California, Nevada, Texas and Arizona.
Among South Dakota students there will be a greater mix of race and economic backgrounds, with a larger proportion of American Indian students expected. Warner said the state universities will need to work harder at helping academically and financially students from those backgrounds.