The president of the University of South Dakota said the school's mission and goals need to be refined as the school moves into an era with more emphasis on speed, and a potentially smaller budget.
President James W. Abbott made his remarks during the annual State of the School address, which took place Thursday, Sept. 29, in the Wayne S. Knutson Theatre.
"I want to see us do what we can do the best we can," Abbott said, "and you don't do that unless you sit down and take stock and think about and mull over and talk about what it is that we want to be. What's our mission? What are our goals? How do we achieve them?"
These goals will most likely need to be achieved with less support from the state government, he said.
"Our university gets about 24 percent of its total budget dollars from the state. We used to get about 40, and it was down to 30 just a few years ago," he said. "Tuition obviously has to be increased every time the budget is cut. So, not only is our state budget declining … but we're also the only state, I think, in the union that does not have a need-based financial aid scholarship. That's very unfortunate."
This is one of the factors that have led to a rise on student default rates, he said.
"They used to be a percent and a half in South Dakota, and I think they're up to something about in the four-ish range, and they're expected to go higher, and of course that will raise immediate red flags in some folks' minds."
Statistics like this lead some members of the public to believe that public higher education is inefficient, Abbott said.
"The fact is, public education is complicated," he said. "We have many bosses. Students have many needs. We do things pretty well, but the public does not believe that."
This point was driven home for Abbott when he recently signed a petition calling for a 1-percent sales tax increase to bring funds to Medicaid/Medicare and K-12 education. Public higher education was not included.
"Public higher ed and K-12 should not be competing against each other for funds," he said. "We should be in concert. We should be in lock-step."
Abbott said that when he asked why public higher education was not included, he was told that research indicated approximately 50 percent of people in the state would support the tax with just K-12.
"When you include public higher education, the percentage of people who indicate that they would vote for it declined to 30 (percent)," he said. "To me, that is a very scary situation."
South Dakota has never been "a state that 'likes' taxes," Abbott said.
"We do not expend what I think are reasonable funds in making the appropriate investments in research and development in things that we know we can do better if we just had the opportunity," he said. "That's where I think we have trouble as a state. From 1889 forward, we have not made the appropriate investments. We just don't do it. 'It's good enough the way it is.' Well, it isn't. It's not going to be, and it shouldn't be."
Conversations about the very nature of higher education are changing now, as well, with an emphasis on speed both in the classroom and the transition into the workforce.
Abbott recalled an exchange he had at a public meeting held by the state Board of Regents.
"I can't remember ever being asked a question like, 'Why do you offer psychology? What is the point in that? Counseling I get, clinical psychology I get. … How does it lead directly to a job?' I was astounded to find the person who asked the question was a high school guidance counselor," he said.
The discussion regarding education has moved from content to the number of credit hours being generated and the number of students being taught, Abbott said.
"For a liberal arts institution, that's a scary public attitude. I think the real question is this: Is fundamental change really necessary? Are we going in the right way? Do we need to just tweak around the edges, or do we have to make significant change?" he said. "I think that's going to be the question the next four, five, 10 years, and I think it's going to have to be answered."