Students, officials praise plan to freeze tuition
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A plan to freeze tuition and fees for South Dakota residents attending state-run universities is good news for students who have struggled to stay in school as costs have risen in recent years, according to the leader of a student organization.
"Seeing this sort of thing happen in South Dakota is absolutely major. It's phenomenal, knowing that our voices as students are being heard," said DJ Smith, a University of South Dakota student who is executive director of the university system's Student Federation.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently included the tuition freeze in his state budget proposal for the year that begins next July, saying South Dakota must hold down costs to keep college affordable. He has proposed giving the university system $4 million in state funds so tuition and fees can be frozen next year, a move identified as the top priority by the state Board of Regents, which runs the state's six public universities. The state would spend another $915,000 to hold down tuition at the four technical institutes.
State lawmakers will have the final say on the tuition freeze when they pass the next state budget in the legislative session that opens Jan. 14.
Smith, a senior at USD, said he knows students who have had to drop out because they didn't have enough money to pay for college, so a freeze on costs will be welcome.
"I think it will open up the opportunity for more people who are living in South Dakota to embrace higher education," Smith said.
Jack Warner, executive director of the Board of Regents, said the proposal would freeze tuition and fees for all in-state undergraduate and graduate students who attend classes on one of the six university campuses. It would not apply to classes taken off-campus, such as those at Capital University Center in Pierre, the University Center in Rapid City and the University Center in Sioux Falls.
The regents sought the freeze to help make college affordable, particularly for students from lower income families, Warner said. South Dakota's resident tuition and fees have been rising faster than those in many neighboring states, he said.
Resident undergraduate tuition at South Dakota's public universities used to rank near the bottom among eight states in the region, but it rose to third highest, $7,676, last year when compared with Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota, according to a study by the regents. The average among the other seven states was $7,285.
More telling was the report's finding that South Dakota's undergraduate resident tuition and fees rose by 29 percent from fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2013, which ended in June. That was the second-largest increase over that period among nearby states. North Dakota, for example, had only a 17.4 percent rise in tuition and fees during those years.
"It's been a source of concern to the regents about maintaining affordability, so we put this forward as our highest priority," Warner said.
Enrollment has grown substantially at South Dakota's public universities in the past decade, but the fall headcount fell slightly from 2012 to this year.
South Dakota ranks slightly below the national average in the percentage of its working population with post-secondary degrees, and the state must produce more college graduates to fill jobs that will be created in the future, Warner said.
"The more highly educated our population is, the better we can compete in today's economy. And the more individuals who have degrees, the better they can compete for jobs that pay well and are the jobs in the modern economy," Warner said. "We have a lot of work to do to improve the number of people who have post-secondary degrees."
Slightly more than two-thirds of the more than 36,000 students in South Dakota's public university system are state residents. Students from other states should expect a modest increase in tuition and fees next year, Warner said.
Lawmakers generally expressed support for the proposal, saying it could help develop the skilled workers South Dakota's economy needs.
Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, said the freeze is a good idea as long as the university system can pay its bills, particularly employee health insurance costs.
"We need to make sure we're keeping our universities competitively priced. Certainly, I think there's some indications that it could be warranted, assuming we can fit that into the budget and make that work with the dollars we have," Brown said.
House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said a tuition freeze would be a good short-term move, but South Dakota needs to develop a state scholarship program based on financial need to help students from lower-income families.
"I'm not sure a one-year freeze is going to fix a bad situation that's developed over the last decade or so, but at least it's a one-year freeze and maybe a recognition we've got a problem," Hunhoff said.