VERMILLION — At the University of South Dakota, things are on the grow.
USD has experienced a 4.1% surge in enrollment this fall, including record breaking enrollment in a number of areas. The Vermillion school has reached an overall headcount of 9,856, including 1,326 new students.
The figures were released Tuesday as part of a Board of Regents (BOR) conference call featuring Executive Director Brian Maher and five of the six public university presidents.
USD President Sheila Gestring welcomes her school’s growth and sees it as the start of an upward trend. The university admitted its highest number of first-time, full-time students in its history, up 8.2%.
Also, early figures show USD has recorded the highest retention of students in its history at an estimated 81.7% compared to 72% in 2017.
“For USD to achieve above an 81% retention rate as an open access institution — that tells me that this university’s faculty and staff are not only talented, but (also) incredibly dedicated to the success of our students as well,” she said.
While USD attracts students from across the globe, its enrollment climb has been rooted close to home, Gestring said. The incoming class of South Dakota students is up 1.1% over last year.
“Our resident students make up roughly 65% of our total enrollment, and that has been a fairly consistent number for a number of years. USD has a record enrollment from Nebraska and near record enrollments from Iowa and Minnesota,” she said.
“In a time where workforce is in high demand, attracting these students — who often stay and work in South Dakota after graduation — is critically important to the health of our state’s economy.”
Overall, South Dakota’s six public universities have enrolled 33,690 this fall for a 0.7% increase. The system has enrolled 5,208 first-time freshman and has the equivalent of 23,969 full-time students, based on credit hours.
The growth, while modest, ends a five-year decline, Maher said.
“Not only is it the first time we have seen an overall enrollment increase since 2017, it’s also only the second time since 2013 we have seen an increase in enrollment,” he said during Tuesday’s conference call.
Maher credited two factors: the new Freedom Scholarship and holding tuition and fees flat for two years in a row. He also noted an increase in South Dakota high school graduates and apparently more of them choosing the state’s public universities.
The BOR system recorded 5,208 incoming first-year students this fall, compared to 4,898 incoming first-year students last fall, Maher said. “We’re excited for this year, but we’re also looking forward as we double down on our retention efforts.”
USD’s enrollment spike provided the difference in the overall growth of the Board of Regents system. Most of the universities saw modest gains or slight decreases.
The following are figures from the other five public universities:
• Black Hills State of Spearfish, 3,425, down 3.2%;
• Dakota State of Madison, 3,241, up 0.7%;
• Northern State of Aberdeen, 3,344, up 0.1%;
• School of Mines and Technology of Rapid City, 2,493, up 3.1%;
• South Dakota State, 11,331, down 1.2%.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Gestring told the Press & Dakotan she agreed with Maher on the importance of affordability for recruiting and retaining students.
As for USD’s growth, she told the newspaper she attributed it to different categories.
She cited the recognition which USD has received from national organizations such as US News & World Report, Princeton Review, Forbes and Washington Monthly.
“These rankings have placed USD in the highest ‘National University’ categories in South Dakota, and that is testament to the incredible talent in our faculty and staff,” she said. “What I think sets us apart nationally is our commitment to student success, and I simply cannot thank our faculty and staff enough.”
USD has made investments in its student services, which have improved the learning and living experiences, she said.
In addition to new students, total overall international enrollment hit 400 students — the highest in university history, surpassing USD’s previous fall record of 258 in 2021.
This year, USD enrolled 219 incoming international students from 35 countries, surpassing last year’s previous record of 103. This new class includes 159 international graduate students –- an increase of 137%, with almost all the growth coming from computer science.
The university has seen growing interest from countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Nigeria, which can be attributed to the relationships built with international partners as well as connections driven by USD’s computer science department, said Scott Pohlson, vice president of admissions, marketing and university relations.
“We’re excited to welcome a large new class of international students to USD,” Pohlson said. “USD’s computer science program has gained international attention due to its focus in artificial intelligence, and we’re pleased we can provide a workforce of young scientists to enter the global job market.”
Gestring sees the global outreach continuing to grow.
“International student recruiting was an investment we made four or five years ago, and I believe we are seeing the fruit of those labors now,” she said. “Often times, it takes three to four years for an investment to pay off, and the last two years we have set records in the international student enrollment.”
USD has also invested in its Native American student services by creating Living and Learning Communities through seed funding from the USD Women in Philanthropy, she said.
New Native undergraduate student enrollment continues to steadily increase, with a 17.9% improvement over last year. Retention for Native students participating in the Living and Learning Communities ranged from 77% in the fall to 88% in the spring.
Participation doubled this year over last fall; among the 36 participants, at least 14 tribal nations and six states are represented.
“Many students have stated that they chose to attend USD because of these services,” she added.
ENSURING STUDENT SUCCESS
In addition, the university has launched or expanded programs benefiting its students’ success and quality of life, enabling them to complete their degree, Gestring said.
USD supporters have invested in a food pantry, Charlie’s Cupboard, a few years ago, Gestring said. The project addressed the food and hunger needs of students who may have limited financial resources.
USD Women in Philanthropy provided seed funding and helped drive support from Feeding South Dakota, the local Vermillion Food Pantry, retailers and wholesalers, and numerous other partners.
When it comes to facilities, USD has made investments in modern facilities such as the new Health Sciences facility, the upcoming wellness expansion and others still in the pipeline, the president said. Such projects involve the state, regents and private partners, she said.
“When people see others willing to invest in their success, it means a great deal,” she said.
Gestring pointed to the national and even global recognition the Coyote athletes have received in the Olympics and a wide variety of intercollegiate sports.
“All of our athletics programs are on an upward glidepath,” she said.
In addition, the fine arts have bested major universities, with the USD symphony orchestra awarded second place in the 2022 American Prize in Orchestral Performance. The incoming class in the College of Fine Arts is up 43%.
USD has fielded nationally competitive teams with Knudson School of Law, Beacom School of Business and others. In addition, USD students have been awarded national, highly competitive scholarships such as the Boren, Fulbright, Truman, Udall, Gilman and more.
“This year alone, 12 new students were named,” she said. “Our College of Arts and Sciences has a rich history of national scholar winners with 9 this year and more than 140 in the past.”
Success builds on success, Gestring said. “Winning never hurts,” she added.
GROWING FOR THE FUTURE
However, USD’s growth has left the Vermillion campus bursting at the seams, Gestring said.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is much like many individuals in South Dakota right now — there isn’t enough housing,” she said.
USD officials have turned their focus on finding suitable housing for students, Gestring said.
“Within the community, we are working with realtors and those who rent out houses and apartments,” the president said. “They are trying to accommodate us and be as helpful as possible.”
Because of the housing crunch, USD has turned away 20 international students, Gestring said.
The housing crunch has also impacted undergraduates, particularly new students, Gestring said. “We have freshman students who are still waiting for rooms,” she said.
To meet the demand, USD officials have housed student in hotels, lounges and other accommodations in available larger rooms, the president said. In some cases, students prefer to stay in the makeshift on-campus housing even after rooms become available.
Gestring expects the current housing crunch to be temporary.
“This year has brought incredible growth, both number wise and percentage wise,” she said. “By spring, I expect things will open up and we’ll be able to move students in (to regular housing).”
The housing demand comes at a time when USD has fewer beds to offer, Gestring said. She noted the university has started a renovation of two floors of residence halls and plans to continue with two floors at a time.
Two older dormitories, Julian Hall and Brookman Hall, are being demolished to create parking space for the new Health Sciences Building. USD officials held the ribbon cutting for the health facility last week.
The loss of the two dormitories is not part of the current housing crunch, Gestring said. Julian Hall hasn’t been used as a residence hall for a decade, and Brookman was relying on Julian for its steam and utilities.
In addition, the 90-bed Brookman Hall couldn’t be maintained at a reasonable cost and looked to cost millions of dollars to keep it open, she added.
Gestring foresees continued enrollment growth, fueled by areas such as the graduate computer science programs, which saw growth of more than 130%.
However, she sees the new Health Sciences building already playing a major impact that will only grow with the demand for students entering a variety of specialized health fields.
The new facilities are built for 30%-100% growth in fields such as nursing, dental hygiene, physician assistant, medical lab science and other programs such as addiction counseling and social work.
But a university education must remain within financial reach, Gestring said.
“Affordability is top of mind for families now more than ever,” she said. “I believe the Freedom Scholarship, the South Dakota focus on holding tuition and fees flat, and the generosity of our USD donors and friends has played a huge role in USD’s enrollment success this year.”
The partnerships are bearing fruit that will continue for years to come, she said.
“I cannot thank everyone enough,” she said. “This is a shining example of what can happen when we all work together toward a common goal.”
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