While the University of South Dakota (USD) has the largest freshman class in its history this fall, the total number of students enrolled at the institution is down almost 2 percent.
The decline at USD is similar to the overall drop in headcount enrollment at South Dakota's six public universities, which shrunk by 337 students to 36,103 — a less than 1 percent slide. It ends a 13-year streak of setting overall enrollment records in the university system.
"We've had an uninterrupted string of continuous headcount enrollment growth," said Jack Warner, the South Dakota Board of Regent's executive director and CEO, during a teleconference Tuesday afternoon. "This (decline) was not entirely unexpected, given that last year's enrollment growth was a record for the system."
In 2010, the universities experienced 8 percent growth in headcount enrollment.
Meanwhile, the number of full-time equivalent students for the fall 2011 term, a number that is based on total credit hours generated by all students within the system, increased by 94.5 students to a total of 26,719.5.
"The pattern we're seeing is very slightly fewer students in the head count, but they're taking more courses on average than the previous year," Warner said. "We think it may have something to do with an economy that is beginning to improve. In particular, part-time adult students are finding their way to the job market … Whether that is in fact a trend related to the easing of the recession, I don't know. But that's one way to speculate about it.
"The other way to speculate about it is to say that we're comparing ourselves against a very high base last year," he continued. "So this maintaining a virtually level enrollment this year was expected because last year's rate of growth was probably not sustainable in this kind of climate."
Headcount enrollment at USD fell 1.78 percent to 9,970 students, dipping below the 10,000-student benchmark that was first reached in 2010 with an enrollment of 10,151 students.
However, the college's total full-time equivalent student enrollment increased from 7,069 students from the fall of 2010 to 7,233 in 2011. USD joins Northern State University and Dakota State University as the three regental schools to grow their full-time equivalent enrollment from last year to this year.
James Abbott, president of the University of South Dakota, stressed the increase in freshman enrollment during Tuesday's conference call.
"The big news at USD this fall is a 9 percent increase in first-time, full-time freshman," he said. "We're particularly pleased about that. This is not only our largest freshman class ever, but ACTs are higher, high school GPAs are higher and class rank is higher, as well.
"Obviously," he added in a media release, "we are very pleased with our growth of traditional undergraduate students, but we are even more excited that we have been able to maintain a quality incoming freshman class."
He also noted a 28 percent increase in students enrolled in the university's Honors Program and that residence halls at the college are about 99 percent full.
Meanwhile, Northern State University had an 8.6 percent enrollment increase — the highest of any school. The school enrolled 284 more students this year compared with last year.
Dakota State University and South Dakota State University each had a less than 1 percent decrease in student enrollment. South Dakota Mines & Technology decreased by 1.8 percent.
Blacks Hills State University saw the biggest decrease at 6.5 percent. The school enrolled 307 fewer students this year compared with last year.
Black Hills State President Kay Schallenkamp said the decline was directly attributed to losing graduate students who were part of a research grant.
The universities have so far been able to withstand a 10 percent budget cut by the state Legislature, Abbott said.
"The cuts, of course, are unfortunate in many ways," he stated. "We've all done what we needed to do to be more efficient."
Warner noted that the universities face demographic challenges because the number of high school-age residents in South Dakota and the region is expected to continue to decline through 2018.
"We feel we are capturing our fair share of those high school graduates," he said. "We have also increased our out-of-state student percentage from 29 percent last year to 31 1/2 percent this year. We do that by keeping our out-of-state tuition affordable.
"There is also a public policy reason for attracting out-of-state students," Warner added. "If we look at projected South Dakota demographics, there really is only one age group increasing in South Dakota and that's the over-65 population. We need to bring in young people to South Dakota, educate them here and hope to retain a significant portion of them to participate in our workforce, or we're likely to have significant workforce shortages."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.