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As enrollment and revenues at S.D. universities fall, worries rise over possible program and personnel cuts

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Total enrollment is on a steady decline in the public university system in South Dakota, forcing higher education officials to seek new sources of revenue, realign infrastructure and potentially cut programs or faculty positions.

At South Dakota State University in Brookings — the state school with the highest enrollment — an unexpected 4% decline in enrollment in the fall of 2019 caused university officials to begin working on a plan likely to include cutting faculty positions. The SDSU Faculty Senate has been discussing the issue for months, said David Clay, the organization’s president.

“Much of the faculty are worried about their jobs,” Clay said.

Final decisions about any cuts aren’t expected until the spring of 2020, he said.

Any cuts will be doubly frustrating because the enrollment declines largely are due to circumstances outside of faculty members’ and even university officials’ control, Clay said. “It’s like a perfect storm,” he said.

Since 2010, overall enrollment at South Dakota public universities has fallen by more than 5%, or by almost 2,000 students. Long-term economic and demographic changes, as well as higher on-time graduation rates, are driving what has been a slow decline in the number of South Dakota residents seeking college degrees at the state’s six public universities.

Some schools have seen enrollment increases, but those have been offset by larger losses at other universities, with SDSU seeing the largest percentage decline. The number of state residents enrolled part time or full time at the state’s universities has fallen even faster. Between 2010 and 2019, resident enrollment fell from 25,800 to 21,400, a drop of around 17%.

The decline in overall enrollment represents a loss of millions of dollars in revenue for the university system which gets roughly 60% of its funding from tuition and fees.

State support for higher education, meanwhile, has largely remained flat outside of one-time funding for specific projects. As enrollment continues to decline, universities are being forced to rethink programs, staffing and teaching methods, said Paul Beran, executive director of the state Board of Regents.

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