Regents discuss higher ed at meeting here

Ongoing cuts in the state budget have driven up tuition and fees for public universities in South Dakota and elsewhere for some time.

Over the past three years, the state has seen a 15.6 percent cut in its general fund, equaling a loss of roughly $27.8 million to the higher education budget.

However, Jack Warner, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents, said the public universities have done a good job of coping by remaining affordable, attracting students and becoming more cost-efficient.

"We're positioned about where we think we should be," Warner said. "We think we're reasonably affordable, but we have to watch it, because there's been considerable cost-shifting from the state to the student."

The issues were addressed Monday night during a meeting at the fire house in Vermillion that was attended by District 17 lawmakers, education officials and members of the public.

Warner said the state accounted for approximately 57 percent of the budget of public universities in 2001. The estimated amount for FY2012 is 39 percent.

"In the last year alone, it was (a loss of) about $5.4 million across the system, so we've been challenged to do a better job with fewer resources. I think we're responded quite well," he said.

While some of the difference is made up by raising tuition, universities have become more efficient by reviewing under-productive programs and weeding them out.

Last year, 44 low-enrolled programs were cut, as well as 118 specializations and 15 minors, Warner said.

However, the savings from these cuts will not take effect for some time, as they won't be completely eliminated until the students enrolled in them have graduated, he said.

A more readily-definable positive is the more than $134 million awarded to state universities as research grants over the past year, he added.

Universities also are growing the enrollment of out-of-state students by keeping their tuition rates lower.

"We think this is very important, because every age group except the 65 and older is declining," Warner said. "The aging of South Dakota's population is going to be a significant problem if we're going to have a workforce that will fill the kinds of jobs we want to attract to the state."

Graduation rates are higher, too, with an increase of approximately 18 percent over the past eight years, he said.

This is one of the state's main goals, as the more people are educated, the more the state's overall wealth will rise, he said.

"If you earn a high school diploma, your average wage is likely to be just under $33,000 a year. A bachelor's degree adds a premium up to $54,000 a year," Warner said. "Over a lifetime, a bachelor's degree recipient is likely to earn three-quarters of $1 million more than a high school graduate."

Public universities receive public funds because they serve a public benefit, he said.

"If any given individual is likely to earn three-quarters of $1 million over a lifetime of work with a bachelor's degree, imagine how that premium multiplies if you graduate 5,000 people a year with bachelor's degrees, and the benefit that accrues to the local community," Warner said.

The state receives an economic benefit of approximately $1.97 billion per year in funds generated by the universities, he said.

"Our employees spend money, our students spend money in the communities, and that has a multiplier effect," he said.

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