Despite the recession – or perhaps because of it – total enrollment at the University of South Dakota has continued growing toward 10,000 students.
The Board of Regents released enrollment figures Thursday for USD and the other public colleges and universities in South Dakota.
According to information released by the Regents, 9,617 students are enrolled this fall at USD, a 3.5 percent increase from last year's 9,291 students. The figure includes students enrolled in distance learning and one of the off-campus centers in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City.
The enrollment has grown despite financial concerns for many families, said USD President Jim Abbott.
"Given the condition of the national economy, students recognize that their education is an investment," he said. "At USD, our students have opportunities to pursue national and global scholarships, enroll in signature academic programs, and (enjoy) facilities that are second to none."
With the current recession, more people are returning to school for further training or to change careers, said Regents spokeswoman Janelle Toman.
South Dakota has taken strides in recent years to make higher education affordable for more students, she said.
The South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship provides $5,000 over four years to a qualifying student who attends an eligible higher education institution in South Dakota.
In addition, the Regents have lowered non-resident tuition, which has helped offset a declining number of South Dakota high school graduates, Toman said.
"The board, several years ago, made a conscious decision to lower (non-resident) tuition to make it more attractive to out-of-staters," she said. "We need not only our own students but people from other states to come in and populate the state. Many come (to South Dakota) for college and stay."
A dramatic lowering of non-resident tuition in recent years has benefited USD and South Dakota State University (SDSU) of Brookings, which draw a large number of students from neighboring states such as Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota, Toman said.
"Previously, there were different views of out-of-state students, asking if we were subsidizing them," she said. "Therefore, they increased the out-of-state tuition rate to 323 percent of the in-state rate.
"Those students voted with their feet, and that was especially felt in the corners of the state, at schools like USD and SDSU."
The non-resident tuition rate was reduced from the higher level, and out-of-staters now pay 150 percent of in-state tuition, Toman said.
The reduced tuition has helped produce dramatic results in attracting out-of-state students to USD.
Non-resident enrollment at the Vermillion-based school has increased by more than 8 percent since 2008. USD saw 2,643 non-resident students in 2009 compared to 2,452 non-resident students in 2008.
Enrollment of South Dakota students has increased 2 percent over last year. Meanwhile, enrollment of Iowa students has increased 7 percent, and the number of Minnesota students has risen 6 percent.
Abbott has set a goal of growing enrollment to 12,000. USD has undertaken a major construction phase in recent years, which has help meet the current growth mode. A number of building projects are now completed, while others are under way or on the drawing board.
In fact, the USD campus has resembled a construction zone, Abbott said.
"I think we have completed about $155 million of construction projects," he said. "We have the room and feel like we can accommodate students."
Since 2003, total enrollment at USD has increased more than 21 percent from 7,917 students to 9,617.
During that same time frame — from fall 2003 to fall 2009 — graduate enrollment at USD has increased by 23 percent. That includes a current 9-percent increase from last fall.
"We are very pleased to have as many students as we do, with 3.51 percent growth," Abbott said. "We are up in the number of students overall, and we are particularly pleased with the 8.85 percent increase in graduate enrollment. Both represent good numbers for us."
USD will continue its focus on research, which should bring more students, staff and dollars to campus, Abbott said.
A major boost came this week, when U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) announced USD will receive $2.2 million in federal stimulus funds for medical projects and research efforts.
Research at South Dakota's public colleges has increased in recent years, producing a number of achievements, Toman said.
"For example, the medical folks at USD are doing things to make people more healthy and to create products and processes for commercial applications, particularly in biomedical research," she said.
This fall's enrollment also indicates increased cultural diversity on the USD campus. African-American student enrollment has increased by 24 percent over the previous fall, while the Asian student population has grown by 6 percent since last fall.
USD reflects an overall effort among South Dakota's public colleges for more diversity, Toman said.
"Last year, about 7 percent of our enrollment was students of color. In this state, that is primarily American Indians, although we have other ethnicities as well," she said. "At all of our campuses, we are aware of and interested in making sure they have diverse student populations. It's a challenge in this state."
The GEAR UP program provides a college experience for American Indian high school students, which can lead them to pursue a degree, Toman said.
"They have a taste of summertime on campus, and it gives them a leg up," she said.
Growth among South Dakota's public institutions is not limited to USD.
In fact, total head count at South Dakota's six public universities increased more than 2 percent over a year ago. It's the 12th consecutive year that South Dakota's public university system has reported record-high enrollments.
Total head count at the six public universities for the fall 2009 term is 33,779, an increase of 836 students, or 2.54 percent, over a year ago.
The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students – based on total credit hours generated by all students within the system – increased by nearly 542 students, or 2.17 percent.
The following are the figures for South Dakota's public universities:
• Black Hills State, Spearfish: head count 4,076, up 65 for a 1.62 percent increase; FTE 2,974.6, up 63 for a 2.16 percent increase;
• Dakota State, Madison: head count 2,861, up 81 for a 2.91 percent increase; FTE 1,631.5, up 74.9 for a 4.81 percent increase;
• Northern State, Aberdeen: head count 2,672, down 133 for a 4.74 percent decrease; FTE 1,923.1, down 97.7 for a 4.83 percent decrease;
• South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City; head count 2,177, up 116 for a 5.63 percent increase; FTE 1,845.7, up 111.4 for a 6.42 percent increase;
• South Dakota State, Brookings: head count 12,376, up 381 for a 3.18 percent increase; FTE 10,197.3, up 297.5 for a 3.01 percent increase;
• University of South Dakota, Vermillion: head count 9,617, up 326 for a 3.51 percent increase; FTE 6,895.8, up 92.9 for a 1.37 percent increase;
• TOTAL: head count 33,779, up 836 for a 2.54 percent increase; FTE 26,468, up 542 for a 2.17 percent increase.