The South Dakota Board of Regents speaks with legislative leaders during a roundtable discussion June 21, 2023, in Madison. (Courtesy of the SDBOR)
Another tuition freeze is at the top of the South Dakota Board of Regents’ legislative wish list for next year — but that’s at the same time the state expects a return to normal revenue numbers.
That emerged Wednesday from a roundtable discussion among the regents and some legislators at Dakota State University in Madison. The discussion came nearly a month after Gov. Kristi Noem issued a lengthy letter criticizing the state university system and challenging the regents to do better.
The Legislature has taken advantage of the hundreds of millions of surplus dollars the state has seen in the last few years to issue three years of tuition freezes at the state’s universities while also approving 7% increases for education funding during the last legislative session in its $7.4 billion budget — the largest budget in state history.
Some legislators and economic forecasters are doubtful that the state will continue running such large surpluses.
“I think those days are probably over,” said House of Representatives Majority Leader Will Mortenson, R-Pierre.
Mortenson told regents the Legislature will “hopefully be able to give inflationary increases” to education next year, adding that “we don’t get the sense it’ll be hundreds of millions of excess revenue anymore.”
Tuition freezes play a key role in maintaining the affordability of higher education in the state and enticing out-of-state students to pursue higher education in South Dakota, regents told legislators.
And tuition freezes can play a part in addressing the system’s graduation rate, which is a statistic Noem highlighted in her public letter to the regents last month. Roughly 47% of students enrolled at state public universities are graduating, Noem said, based on data from the U.S. Department of Education College Scoreboard. Board of Regents data, meanwhile, shows an average graduation rate among state institutions of 59%.
Noem challenged the board to raise graduation rates to 65% by 2028. She also encouraged the board to make college more affordable, though she did not suggest solutions in the letter.
Mortenson said there’s room for improvement on graduation rates, but the rate has increased from 54% to 59% in the last 10 years.
Regents President Time Rave said it would be easier to raise graduation rates if the state increased its entrance requirements, such as ACT scores, but that wouldn’t serve the mission of higher education.
“I feel good about where we’re at,” Rave said.
Noem’s letter also touched on reviewing funding sources to “ensure there is no money coming into our education system from China,” banning drag shows on campuses and requiring government classes for graduation.
While the roundtable didn’t touch on those concerns, the legislators did ask if political activism “seeping into universities” is a problem in South Dakota, which Noem also alleged in her letter.
The short answer, Rave said, is no. Student Regent Brock Brown, a law student at the University of South Dakota, gave legislators an example of how diverse, vigorous and respectful debates were used in a class.
“Never once did I think my voice was stifled as a conservative in the classroom,” Brown said.
About three in every four South Dakota children who attend an in-state university stay in the state after graduation, Senate Majority Leader Casey Crabtree said. Those young adults will fill workforce needs in a state that has over 25,000 job openings and reports the lowest unemployment rate in the country.
“We know your success is our state’s success,” Crabtree said, “and more importantly our kids’ success.”
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