Sheila Gestring, the new University of South Dakota (USD) president, addressed the Yankton Interchange women’s group at a luncheon Monday.
Gestring touted USD projects and accomplishments as well as plans to continue making post-secondary education available to more people.
Gestring began working at USD in 2006 in the Finance Department, and was promoted to chief financial officer in 2010. Last year, she assumed the office of university president.
The Springfield native will be USD’s 18th president and is scheduled to be inaugurated on Feb. 13 in the Aalfs Auditorium at USD.
On Monday, she gave an update on the university which included enrollment and improvements to buildings, curriculum, financial aid and workforce development.
“Dakota’s Promise is a proposal for state (funded) need-based financial aid,” Gestring said. “South Dakota is the only state in the United States that does not have need-based (financial aid). That would help 6,000 students per year.”
According to Gestring, USD has lost more than 500 students in the last five years in terms of “Pell-eligible enrollment.” The federal need-based Pell Grant program determines need based on information submitted on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
“The pushback has always been, ‘Well, I just worked my way through college,’” Gestring said. “You could do that (once); you can’t do that anymore. In that era, the state of South Dakota was paying for 60 percent of the price tag to attend a university, and now that’s flipped; they pay 40 percent and the student has to pay 60 percent.”
With all of the grants and financial aid available, a Pell-eligible student would still have a gap of $10,000 to cover per year, she said.
“When you are full Pell eligible, you can’t come up with $10,000 a year — no matter how many hours you work,” Gestring said. “So, this is something that is really important for us.”
Gestring touched on USD’s role in workforce development, the school’s new Bachelor’s in Technical Leadership program and the partnership with Southeast Technical Institute (STI).
“We created a Bachelor’s in Technical Leadership where you don’t have those transfer-of-credit problems like we used to,” Gestring said. “Now, that student can take that degree in whatever discipline he studied at Southeast Tech and seamlessly transfer that to USD and get a Bachelor’s in Technical Leadership.”
She hopes that these types of “stackable” degrees with seamless transfers of credits will open the doors to post-secondary education for many more students.
Gestring also discussed USD’s increased enrollment and the factors she believes contributed to it.
“Enrollment is up,” Gestring said. “This is good. This is really hard to do when high school graduation rates are declining. It’s not just in South Dakota; it’s all over the Midwest.“
She credited the rise in enrollment to academic quality, but also to offering in-state tuition rates to Iowa and Nebraska residents.
“Thirty years ago, about 30 percent of the enrollment was students from northwest Iowa,” Gestring said. “Many years ago, there was a decision that tuition would be raised to 300 percent of resident tuition, and we lost all of that population. We never got all those students back, but we are making a dent now.”
The in-state tuition rate was initially extended only to Iowa, but the increase in enrollments prompted officials to offer that rate to Nebraska residents as well. The result was a 25 percent increase in enrollments from Nebraska at USD, she said.
Gestring also noted a 7 percent increase in enrollment of South Dakota students, to which she attributed several factors.
“We have implemented the ‘Legacy Scholarship,’” Gestring said. “Our alumni association is awarding $1,000 to students of alumni that live in the state of South Dakota. That’s been big; in fact, that’s probably most of the 7 percent.”
She also believes that strides made in academic quality at USD helped boost enrollment.
“USD approved the first (sustainability) doctoral program in the region, and it is one of 16 with the undergraduate degree,” Gestring said. “We created a POET Center for Business Analytics (part of the Beacom School of Business). Students are learning to take all of the data that we collect in any industry and boil it down to useful information.”
Also, through a $1 million donation, USD now has Bloomberg Terminals, which Gestring said is bringing about many exciting new things for students.
Bloomberg Terminals have long provided financial decision makers with timely news, data, trading tools and analytics in an effort to bring transparency to financial markets.
“These are the terminals that you would have access to perhaps on Wall Street,” Gestring said. “These students now will have live data that people use on a regular basis in competition for making investment decisions. You can peel this data away to (access) business analytics practices where you might want to (ask), ‘Is an environmentally conscious business outperforming one that is not?’”
Gestring also discussed the decision to keep the law school in Vermillion, saying that research determined that the drop in enrollments was not due to geography, but to financial need. The addition of 13 full-tuition and fees scholarships increased law school incoming class size as well as the academic credentials of incoming students.
“The LSAT score was the highest it had been since 2010, the class was 22 percent bigger and they also improved their bar pass rate by 30 percent from 52 percent — which was quite alarming — to 82 percent in one year,” she said. “A lot of that is also thanks in part to the $300,000 the Legislature and the governor put towards investing in some curriculum changes so that we could keep the students in experiential learning environments.”