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South Dakota’s higher education system has a money problem that could have broad implications for the state’s future — and it didn't just sneak up on the Board of Regents.

At a recent meeting, the board decided it was about time to consider a plan to pay for future maintenance costs after the 2018 Legislature approved spending $162 million for new buildings at four of the state's six public universities.

Currently, it is the students — many who need loans to finance their college education — who have shouldered most of the burden for debt service, maintenance and repairs as the state's universities have experienced a building boom. Now, a full-time on-campus student pays $936 a year to the Higher Education Facilities Fund, a fee that certainly pinches the pocketbook.

Thanks to projects pitched by the regents and approved by the Legislature this year, South Dakota State University will spend $112 million, Northern State University $27 million, Dakota State University $18 million and the University of South Dakota $5 million on new buildings.

But while the universities increase the size of their campus footprints, enrollment continues to decline at the colleges. According to a report by the Board of Regents, on-campus enrollment has declined 10 percent — from 23,469 to 21,107 — in the past 20 years. Only South Dakota State, which gained 688 students, and South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, up 70 students, have seen their enrollments climb while the state spends prodigious amounts of money on new buildings. It's a lot of debt to put on the back of a few thousand students for years to come.

On-campus enrollment has been hurt by changes in how students can earn college credits. More students, for example, are taking online courses, and they only pay $115 a year for the Higher Education Facilities Fund. Second, a number of high school students have participated in the state's dual-credit program that allows them to earn college credits at a reduced rate.

Then there is the rising cost of higher education in South Dakota. According to published reports, the state's public universities had the second-highest tuition in the seven-state region in 2017. Only Minnesota charged more while Nebraska, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Iowa charged less. At the same time, only Montana provided less state funding than South Dakota for higher education.

It was with all that in mind that Bob Sutton, the president of the Board of Regents, had his "sort of an epiphany." Other board members, however, were disinclined to accept reality as six of the nine regents voted against developing a new maintenance and repair plan. Fortunately, Sutton asserted his authority and the regents will look elsewhere to fund future maintenance costs.

However, the board needs to enlist the Legislature and next governor in this effort. There are only a few ways the state can pay its maintenance bills going forward if on-campus enrollment continues to decline — more state funding for higher education, more private fundraising by the colleges or budget cuts in other areas.

This also is a worthy issue for the candidates for governor to speak out on. So far, the public has not heard a word on this from Rep. Kristi Noem, Attorney General Marty Jackley and state Sen. Billie Sutton. They need to share their proposals with the electorate as the future of the state's higher education system and our youth are at stake.

-- Rapid City (S.D.) Journal

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