South Dakota editorial roundup: Gov. Kristi Noem challenges state Board of Regents

(Metro photo)

Gov. Kristi Noem’s challenge to the South Dakota Board of Regents last week to improve higher education in the state contained some valid points of concern amid other political calculations.

She issued her challenge in a letter to the BOR that, according Board of Regents spokesperson Shuree Mortenson, the board had not seen until it was issued to the public. That could be taken as an indication of the governor’s real target audience.

Another indication came in the first paragraph, when Noem declared that, “for the last several decades, many states have allowed liberal ideologies to poison their universities and colleges.” That’s not particularly subtle.

Neither is her plan to establish a “whistleblower hotline” that “will help keep our institutions accountable.”

Other items, like ordering the BOR to remove references to preferred pronouns, to ensure that no funding for public institutions is coming from China and to prohibit drag shows (despite also calling for respecting freedom of speech, which technically contradicts a drag show ban) is more political meat that will have no impact on the quality of higher education on any campus.

However, her concerns about the graduation rate seem valid, although the precise number is in dispute. Noem said the graduation rate from South Dakota’s public institutions is just 47% over eight years while the BOR puts the number at about 59%. But either number is below the national average of 63%.

One big reason for this is escalating costs, which can derail plans and force some students to withdraw from school with practically nothing to show for the money already invested.

“Countless students have been set up for failure — and charged tens of thousands of dollars for their trouble,” Noem said in her letter.

She challenged the BOR to raise the graduation rate to 65% by 2028 as well as to make college more affordable. How the latter might be accomplished was not made clear, although it dovetails into discussions and proposals heard on the national level lately. South Dakota is far from alone in this situation.

(Here is one possible idea that might be considered as a start, if it isn’t being done already. Incoming freshmen should have a guaranteed level of costs, with predictable and reasonable expectations for increases factored in, over a five-year educational window. That way, students — and their parents, guardians, etc.— will at least have a better understanding of the financial road ahead of them. This wouldn’t be a cure-all or a path etched in stone — especially given that the BOR has frozen tuition recently — but it could be a step toward some predictability.)

Encouraging the BOR to set up apprenticeship programs with businesses also seems like a good suggestion (again, if it’s not being done already). It would provide real-world experience and promote interconnectivity between the schools and the communities they serve.

On the other hand, her idea of mandating a government course and a history course as part of a college graduation requirement may be an impractical idea. That’s something that should already have been handled at the high school level, which is another topic for another time.

So, there are some good intentions in this letter, but whether they are ultimately undercut by the parallel political effort at scapegoating higher education remains to be seen.

— Yankton Press & Dakotan, May 29, 2023