University Center Enrollment Declining; Online Courses Render Satellite Campuses Redundant?

The South Dakota Board of Regents meet this week in the swanky digs of River Rock Lodge. Among their agenda items is a discussion of declining enrollment at the Regental “university centers,” the off-campus locations created by the Regents to serve Sioux Falls, Pierre, and Rapid City. The university center in Rapid is actually enrolling more students than it did in 2008, but that gain has been swamped by losses at the Sioux Falls and Pierre university centers.

The decline in university center enrollment comes as overall enrollment in the Regental system has increased:

South Dakota Board of Regents, Agenda Item 3—Future University Center Models, August 10–12, 2015, p. 5.
South Dakota Board of Regents, Agenda Item 3—Future University Center Models, August 10–12, 2015, p. 5.

The Regents’ report shows that Sioux Falls and Rapid City high school graduates enroll at Regental campuses at about the same rate as students statewide (36.8% statewide, 36.4% in Sioux Falls, 37.4% in Rapid City). Pierre grads head for Regental campuses at an even higher rate (48.6%). Also worth noting is that graduates from all three cities choose SDSU more often than USD—Go Jacks!

The Regents want the university centers to play a role in increasing the number of South Dakotans with post-secondary credentials to 60%. To draw more students to the university centers, the Regents will discuss focusing the university centers more on certificates and two-year degrees, courses dictated by local labor market needs, and lower costs.

The Regents’ report does not mention another obvious alternative: shutting down the university centers for which demand is declining. Students who place a premium on the in-person university classroom experience are already heading for campus. The students who are too busy to drive to Brookings, Madison, Vermillion, or Spearfish to take classes may well be too busy to drive to a university center for classes. Those seeking an alternative to sitting on campus can scratch that itch much more easily by taking online classes—and that online itch-scratching is growing, as shown by the 33.3% increase in off-campus enrollment. Why should the Regents invest in more physical locations when any South Dakotan with Internet can turn her kitchen table into a university classroom?

The Regents won’t save enough money closing the Sioux Falls and Pierre university centers to fund the tuition freeze they want. But with online courses making satellite campuses redundant, eliminating at least those two university centers would be the sort of obvious efficiency that could make the Governor and the Legislature willing to support more tuition assistance from the general fund.

17 Responses to University Center Enrollment Declining; Online Courses Render Satellite Campuses Redundant?

  1. happy camper

    The job market is good again so those non-traditional students who went back to school at the university centers during the downturn are now employed. This is good news and just a reflection of the economy. Kids who want the school experience still attend regular campuses. Just my guess.

  2. If online is a real solution, why not solve the teacher shortage problem in public schools by putting HS students in online classes? They don’t operate under a model of self-support for teacher pay so the dividends would be much higher.

  3. Denature, I think some public schools are trying to head toward that direction. Catch me in a conspiratorial mood, and I might say that’s what Bill Janklow had in mind when he invested so heavily in wiring the schools in the first place. But online classes may not replace teachers; after all, someone still has to design the lessons, engage students in discussion, and evaluate their work. Having taken and taught classes online, I’d argue that an online teacher has to work even harder to maintain the same level of attention to students as can be achieved in the face-to-face classroom. Sure, if Madison can’t find a calculus teacher, they could contract with West Central to put the Hartford teacher’s lessons and notes online for the Madison kids to follow, but that’s a suboptimal solution.

    In the immediate term, the problems with translating the Regental-level solution I propose above to the K-12 level are (1) the state has not invested in online K-12 classes to the same extent the Regents have invested in online delivery, (2) online classes may not translate to the the lower grades (I’m speculating, but I welcome any evidence folks would like to provide on successful online kindergarten), (3) we don’t see K-12 parents choosing online education over existing classrooms the way we see college students apparently choosing the Regents’ online options over the university centers, and (4) local schools play an integral role in 151 communities across South Dakota that is not matched by the university center facilities in Sioux Falls and Pierre.

  4. CH,

    In my mind, to have low-cost alternatives for a college education, closing University Centers isn’t the answer. Why are state taxpayers providing a larger subsidy to students attending a traditional institution vs a University Center? Or, said the other way, why do we expect University Center students to fund closer to 100% of their cost of education when traditional institution students get a large subsidy?

    The total cost to the student is cheaper via University Centers. The total cost to the taxpayer is cheaper via University Centers. Closing the cheaper alternative to both student and taxpayer doesn’t make sense to me. If I am missing something, please illuminate me.

    I’d like to see some elasticity study on choices of where students attend college. For instance, would $100 increased cost to traditional students and $500 decrease (or whatever the $100 increase generates) cost to university center students flip the numbers?

  5. Happy, that’s a good guess, but enrollment data in the Regents’ report suggest the decline at the university centers is something other than a simple retreat from a recession-induced surge. Check out the charts on page 6:

    enrollment at Sioux Falls campuses

    This chart shows that enrollment at the SF UC (yellow curve) didn’t spike in 2009 or 2010, and it has declined to less than the fall 2008 level since. Other campuses in Sioux Falls (Augie, USF, Southeast, Kilian, Globe, Colorado Technical, etc., all combined in grey curve) saw a clear recession bump and post-recession retreat.

  6. Deb Geelsdottir

    “Regents will discuss focusing the university centers more on certificates and two-year degrees”

    Isn’t that what the vo-tech and community colleges do? That sounds like an unnecessary duplication.

  7. “(3) we don’t see K-12 parents choosing online education over existing classrooms the way we see college students apparently choosing the Regents’ online options over the university centers”

    This is likely a difference in marketing rather than innate differences in population. Universities have a financial incentive to keep online students from spending $ for out of system online courses. That’s not an issue for public schools.

    Economics is part of the reason cited for decline in enrollment. As shown in the chart from Cory, enrollment peaked in 2010 and declined from 2-10% each year after for both populations. Online has also been a factor. SD has some great online courses and some horrible ones. I recall that these courses also don’t receive full state support but I’m not up to date.

    Thousands of students at university centers are aware of online options and have presumably rejected them for all or part of their education. From Cory’s link, UC-SF took in 6.74 million and paid out 2.6 million in instructional costs. Part of the problem is the funding formula applied to UC and hesitance among some among the big public universities to allow the center to thrive. For example, for most of their existence they have been blocked from going to High Schools to engage students and encourage them to attend, something the state universities get to do. Also, hybrid courses have been offered at university centers–students take part online and part in class, which allows instructors to use the best strengths of each and avoid weaknesses of a delivery model.

    Closing centers for online also ignores the important roles the centers play in communities. Sioux Falls is a population center. Many who teach online require proctors for tests to avoid cheating. UC has offered this service to affiliated universities with little remuneration. There are nursing schools in Sioux Falls. This is one of around 3 fields that require a degree in South Dakota where increases in jobs are predicted. University Centers can fulfill the prerequisites for these programs and offer the spaces, materials, and expertise– like labs in chemistry and biology that are difficult to replicate adequately or efficiently in an online environment for future professionals. Most HS students in SD aren’t prepared for college. To pass algebra or get writing up to snuff, a significant portion of people going to college are going to be better off with personal attention from an instructor or affiliated tutors that just can’t be replicated online. I believe UC-SF also houses a pharmacy school and a business incubator.

    The high dropout rate of online courses must also be addressed. I don’t think it’s responsible to abandon personal instruction in favor of online if retention rates don’t match. Many students are ill prepared for the demands of online education. Some SD universities have put forth laudable efforts on increasing retention of students but I am unsure of any resulting changes evident in the online communities. Those who are married, have kids, need to work locally, or can’t afford to uproot to a traditional campus, or those who just want to explore educational opportunities now and move to a campus later deserve the same opportunity and quality of education as that from campus.

    Given how they are funded, how does closing centers save any money?

  8. happy camper

    Thanks for the information Cory but I beg to differ. The more legitimate state schooling did climb somewhat after the 08 financial crisis and as we might expect the for-profit schools benefited the most from that desperate situation and heavy marketing. With no jobs in sight kids were easy picking and it’s only in the last year or two that it’s more commonly known how horrific those for-profit schools can be. Most people would rather have a job than go to school. I remember expressing concern to Dr. Knowlton (as many felt at the time) that the university centers would take students away from the Madison campus, but he said no, that recent high school graduates and those at the university centers would be quite separate demographics seeking a very different experience. I doubted him at the time thinking Sioux Falls kids would stay in the city but the numbers go his way. During better economic times adults want to work and care for family so it’s natural for those numbers to go down when conditions improve. Sometimes there is good news and I think we should look at this positively. We are in a much better place now. I was waiting for a Joad family baby to float downstream. Let’s be thankful that didn’t happen. Madison has new businesses downtown. Things are going pretty good. Employment is the goal for most Americans.

  9. I’m a current non-traditional student at the University Center in Sioux Falls. I’m majoring in psychology and my home school is SDSU.

    I love that something like this exists because I don’t have to rearrange my life drastically in order to get a bachelor’s degree from a school that is highly respected. Just as not everyone is cut out for college, there are people who do want a well-rounded education. While I agree that it’s practical to have a curriculum that focuses on your field-specific skills, those so-called “classes you don’t need” (like the humanities) teach you such things as critical thinking skills and problem solving. Aren’t employers always complaining that kids coming into the workforce lack critical thinking skills?

    Although, I would drive up to Brookings if I had to, I love that I can attend school in Sioux Falls.

    One way that I think that the UC’s can attract more students is to market themselves as an alternative to the for-profit colleges who advertise towards non-traditional students like myself. What the Globe Universities of the world don’t tell you is that they are more expensive, their credits will not transfer over to other schools, and a lot of employers don’t hire people who went to for-profit colleges.

    I’ve had, so far, nothing but a positive experience at the Sioux Falls University Center. I do believe that Board of Regents need to do a better job of marketing the schools to the general public.

  10. happy camper

    Education has become way too much of a business. Often phd is just 3 friggin letters that fit nicely behind pompous ass.

  11. larry kurtz

    Amen, Crappy Camper.

    Jon K. Lauck grew up in South Dakota and earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa and his law degree from the University of Minnesota.

  12. Kathy, I’m glad the UC is making it easier for you to get your psychology degree. Has your program included any online classes? Do you think online classes would allow you similar freedom and provide a comparably well-rounded education?

  13. Nick Nemec

    Without Capital University Center in Pierre my wife’s journey from licensed practical nurse to registered nurse to nurse practitioner would have been much more difficult. She completed the RN portion with classes at CUC and her MS and nurse practitioner certification with online classes and supervised clinical semesters at local hospitals.

    The University Centers allowed one middle aged farm wife/LPN to greatly improve her education and earning capacity. It also put one more mid-level provider in the field in central SD thereby helping keep medical costs down.

  14. Nick, could your wife have completed those CUC courses online?

  15. Online learning can be a vital component in cases where distance and opportunity are otherwise limited, but it’s a dreadful substitute for face-to-face learning. Sitting alone in front of your computer and “collaborating” over chat boards to mimic classroom discussion can’t take the place of actual human interaction.

  16. Nick Nemec

    The general courses like algebra and anatomy might have been available online but nursing is a hands on profession and there would still have had to have been onsite clinical classes and training. It’s hard to teach someone what they’re hearing through a stethoscope or how to insert an iv online.

  17. The Rapid City University Center has recently been re-branded BHSU-RC, with the keys to the place turned totally over to Black Hills State University. Ultimately I think this bodes poorly for Spearfish, you can already hear a sucking sound down I-90. Time will tell whether or not the state can sustain the ‘university’ that straddles the sparsely populated Wyoming border. From the press release it seems that BHSU-RC’s competition is its WD Tech neighbor. Will be fun to watch the Reindeer Games as they unfold.