Enrollment drops at state universities

Register file photo: Enrollment at South Dakota State University is down by about 1% this fall, compared to 2.8% at all six South Dakota public universities.

2.8% drop systemwide, SDSU student numbers down by 1%

PIERRE – Fall enrollment at South Dakota’s six public universities is down about 2.8% in headcount and full-time equivalent students, the South Dakota Board of Regents reported Wednesday. 

But South Dakota State University has fared better than most of South Dakota’s public universities during the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting a 1% drop in its total headcount. 

SDSU officials say record retention of last year’s freshmen and level enrollment of domestic students helped, but the pandemic created challenges for many international students who couldn’t get the documentation they needed to travel to the U.S.

Systemwide, the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students for the Fall 2020 term – based on total credit hours generated by all students within the regents’ system – was down by 718 students to a total of 24,586. Total headcount at the six public universities was 33,566, a decline of 2.76% or 954 students over last year.

“Across the country, these are challenging and uncertain times for public higher education,” said Brian Maher, the regents’ executive director and CEO. “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 a university education in these exceptional times. We offer a special thanks to our faculty and staff for their dedication, support and willingness to adapt.”

The enrollment decline was less than the Board of Regents anticipated, Maher said Wednesday. But the drop in students is a continuation of a trend that started in 2018 that has put a financial squeeze on the state’s public universities.

“Our primary funding source is tuition fees so certainly there will be an impact,” Maher said. 

But he said the financial impact will not be felt until next year.

Maher also pointed to an increase in the retention rate of undergraduate students to 81% as a silver lining in the latest enrollment figures. Universities worked to keep students, especially those who live in South Dakota, even as the economic uncertainty of the pandemic caused mass layoffs during the spring.

As students returned to campus, the state has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases. The Department of Health has reported 1,172 cases tied to universities, according to the latest update released on Monday; 1,043 of those people have recovered.

Maher said, “The biggest thing we could do to help enrollment is to clear the public health situation up.” 

Record retention, domestic student enrollment stabilizes SDSU headcount

BROOKINGS – Figures released by the South Dakota Board of Regents showed enrollment at South Dakota State University to be 11,405 students. 

Domestic student enrollment was level from fall 2019 at 10,799 students and the university set a record retention rate of students retained from their freshman to sophomore year at 81% – an increase of 2.7 percentage points from 2019.

“Overall we are pleased with this year’s enrollment numbers given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it has created for everyone,” SDSU President Barry Dunn said. “We saw a tremendous response from students in South Dakota and the region who wanted an on-campus learning environment. The 81% retention rate is an important metric of the university’s overall performance to ensure student success and keep them on pace toward graduation and receiving the benefits of a four-year degree.”

SDSU continues to see an upward trend in four-year and six-year graduation rates with 2,020 degrees conferred in May. The university also graduated its largest class in 2019 with 2,523 students receiving degrees.

“The trend toward faster degree completion is very positive,” Dunn said. “The number of students who come to SDSU with college credits continues to increase, reducing their financial investment to obtain a degree and enter the workforce.”

The Jackrabbit Access College Early First Bank & Trust Scholarship program that launched during the start of the pandemic in March attracted 38 students. The program is available to qualified high school juniors and seniors from low-income families. The scholarship funds one dual credit course each semester of the student’s junior and senior year of high school. Overall, the number of dual credit SDSU students increased by 65 to 609.

The university’s overall enrollment of 11,405 students is down 113 students from last year’s total of 11,518, a decrease of approximately 1%. The decrease reflected the drop in international student enrollment from 719 to 606. 

According to SDSU’s Office of International Affairs, many students who planned to return to SDSU were unable to obtain the necessary documentation to travel to the United States during the pandemic.

“We understand the challenges the pandemic created for international students who wanted to be in Brookings for the fall semester,” Dunn said. “We continue to communicate with them and work to find ways for them to attend SDSU in the future.”

The Office of International Affairs also launched its Global Start campaign, an online program to start international students attending classes in their home countries. Thirty-six students enrolled in the program and look forward to coming to SDSU in the future.

An important increase in enrollment numbers came from first-time, full-time students from South Dakota. The overall student count is 1,109 South Dakotans, which is an increase of 81 from last year.

“We are very pleased to see an increase in the number of South Dakota high school graduates who chose to make SDSU their home,” Dunn said. “We have worked very hard to continue to recruit and retain the students of our great state and provide them with a world-class education that prepares them to make a difference in their communities, the region and beyond.”

Overall, the total number of freshmen is 2,088 students, a slight decrease from last year’s 2,123. Domestic freshman numbers totaled 2,068.

“Before the pandemic started, we were trending toward an increase in our overall freshman class from the previous year,” Dunn said. “The past several months have impacted students and their families in many ways. We have maintained communications with those students who continue to consider SDSU in their future.”

The 81% retention rate surpasses the 80% goal set forth in Imagine 2023, the university’s five-year strategic plan. This year’s retention rate surpasses the previous high of 78.6% established in fall 2016.

“Everyone at the university has a role in retaining our students, from the time they arrive on campus until they graduate,” Dunn said. “As a university, we have worked very hard to identify opportunities and create the programs that support students on their academic journeys. It required a great deal of work by our academic advisors, faculty and many other support units to reach this goal, and we are very proud to have surpassed it.”


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