USD must respond

University of South Dakota president Jim Abbott delivered his annual State of the University Address Wednesday, Sept. 19 at Aalfs Auditorium in Vermillion.

(Photo by David Lias)

By Travis Gulbrandson

The face of higher education is changing, with increasing fees, decreased state funding and more students taking more courses online.

University of South Dakota's president James Abbott said these are challenges that must be faced.

"The question that needs to be answered is how USD responds long-term if the current education model changes radically," he said. "I think every university needs to have an all-campus conversation on the future of higher education, and how you react to it, and you change it or not change it."

He said everyone at USD needs to know how "we can be assured that we can do what we need to do, and that we can continue to be the force … to lead and educate our students."

Abbott made these statements during his annual State of the University Address, which took place Wednesday afternoon in Aalfs Auditorium on the USD campus.

Continuing trends find institutions of higher education losing government funding, which in turn sees an increase in fees for students.

The average college students post-graduation will have a credit card debt of $24,000, Abbott said.

For this reason, taking courses online is attractive to many students, as it is less expensive. However, it may have unforeseen effects on the systems of universities everywhere.

"Graduate education is subsidized by undergraduate education, upper-division courses are basically subsidized by lower-division," Abbott said. "So, what happens to the business model? What happens to our revenue? What happens to the way we operate if or when lower-division courses become ubiquitous and virtually free?"

Abbott said he is "a little haunted" by the story of the Pony Express, which found itself bankrupt in a short space of time after the invention of the telegraph rendered it obsolete.

"I don't know that there's something like an intercontinental telegraph that's going to take over, but I really do wonder how it is that we are going to respond if some of these things come to pass," he said.

Abbott cited a recent survey which claimed that by the year 2020, 60 percent of college students will be taking 60 percent of their courses online.

He said that while these figures don't seem realistic to him, "It's pretty clear what that would do to our normal situation."

One way to protect the university is to increase the number of on-campus graduate and professional program students, Abbott said.

"I think this is going to be … very difficult to convince the next two or three generations of students to say, 'I'm going to go in-residence for a master's in chemistry' (for example)," he said.

But, Abbott said some students say they are only after the degree itself, and not the interpersonal experience gained from in-class interactions.

"If that's the sentiment, it's going to be increasingly difficult to convince folks that they ought to be driving any place any distance to do anything in person," he said.

Abbott said USD already is doing something positive to protect itself – continuing its trend of increasing enrollment of first-time, full-time, on-campus freshmen.

For the year 2009 – the last year before the completion of the Muenster University Center – there were 971 first-time, full-time freshmen. In 2011, there were 1,034.

Last year, there were 1,127 first-time, full-time freshmen.

Abbott said that this year the number increased to 1,251.

"That's a great number … and when the census is all done I think it will show that this year will reverse the slight decline in state support," he said. "I'm perfectly happy to have an increase in self-support, but we do not want the residential number declining. We have turned that around."

He said that if all current trends continue, USD could have a total of 5,369 full-time undergraduates at all levels by 2019.

"It's not a bad number," he said. "I think we can do that."

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