Higher education

Tuition gap causes more to look at South Dakota campuses

Year after offering discounts, that state finds 'the Iowa market has responded'

University of South Dakota Coyotes logo
University of South Dakota Coyotes logo

South Dakota’s year of enticing Iowa students to some of its public universities with tuition discounts seems to be paying off for the northwestern neighbor, but raising concerns here the cost gap will only widen and make it harder to prevent more “brain drain” of talent.

In hopes of combating a downward trend in applicants from Iowa students, South Dakota’s Board of Regents announced in April 2016 it would offer first-time freshman or new transfer students from here the lower tuition it offers its own residents.

The deal applied to the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, Dakota State University and Northern State University — all of which told The Gazette the discount has provided them some benefit.

“It was a risk and the Iowa market has responded,” said Scott Pohlson, vice president for enrollment, marketing and university relations at the University of South Dakota.

His institution for fall 2015 received 610 applications from Iowa, netting 231 deposits from students intending to enroll. The discount offer for Iowans came late in the 2016 application cycle, resulting in a slight 13-person deposit increase.

But for fall 2017, the University of South Dakota reported 750 Iowa applications — a 23 percent increase. Iowa acceptances so far total 503, up 18 percent.

“What this does is it puts us in a more competitive situation with Iowa state institutions,” Pohlson said. “The hope is that it ends up yielding more students. It did last year, which is a big deal for us.”

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South Dakota State University has seen a similar rise in Iowa interest, as has Dakota State University and Northern State.

A final report on the program is not due until this summer, and the South Dakota Board of Regents will assess its overall success to decide if it’ll continue.

“But it looks like it will because so far it’s worked,” Pohlson said.

Retaining Iowa’s high school graduates and educating them in this state long has been a priority for Iowa’s Board of Regents and the universities it oversees.

Those in-state students are a primary reason the Legislature appropriates money to Iowa’s public universities, keeping tuition comparatively low for families that have paid taxes to the state for years.

But Iowa’s regent universities are coming off a fraught legislative session, during which lawmakers clawed back a total of $20.8 million in appropriations already made for this year at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. Then the Legislature cut $9.6 million from the universities’ base funding for fiscal 2018.

Those reductions — brought on by slower-than-expected state revenue growth — prompted regents to propose last-minute tuition hikes across all student levels, programs and campuses.

Including tuition, fees, room, board, and books, the basic cost for Iowans wanting to attend a participating South Dakota school is $17,643, according to that regent system.

Total costs for resident undergraduate students top $21,000 at the UI and $20,000 at ISU and UNI, according to a Board of Regents tuition report — although those figures include several thousand in “other costs,” including “supplies, transportation, and personal expenses.”

UNI, for example, reports its total cost without transportation and personal expenses is $18,164.

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Instead of offering reciprocal tuition for out-of-state students, Iowa’s public universities are proposing steeper non-resident rates for the upcoming school year.

“Tuition revenue obtained from non-resident students is used for student financial aid and program quality initiatives,” said regents spokesman Josh Lehman. He said this week the board’s position on reciprocity has not changed.

Still, education analysts have raised concerns over “brain drain” in Iowa, a slow-growing state with big goals for educating its future workforce. Gov. Terry Branstad has called for 70 percent of Iowans in the workforce to have some level of postsecondary education by 2025.

“It’s not uncommon for Iowa students to want to go to college outside of the state,” said Tina Hoffman, spokeswoman for the Iowa Economic Development Authority. “We just have to make sure that we’re attracting in as many as we might be losing to other states. And that’s certainly true on the other end, after graduation, whether we keep those students within the state and put them into the great jobs that we have available here.”

Even though some Iowans who leave the state for college later return, Hoffman said, the state increases its odds by educating students here — in part because of the many internships and workforce connections afforded through higher education institutions.

South Dakota system administrators said the higher education landscape is becoming increasingly competitive, and Iowa’s proximity to many of its universities in the southeast corner of the state makes the prospective students an important population.

“We’re always looking for that competitive advantage and trying to draw in these students — just because there are only so many students,” said Justin Fraase, director of communications and marketing at Northern State.

Northern State saw general inquiries from prospective Iowa students “skyrocket” from 70 in the 2016 academic year to 865 in the 2017 school year, he said. That translated to a 41 percent rise in Iowa applications.

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“I think everyone’s kind of making moves like that from time to time, just to gain an competitive advantage,” he said. “With our state moving to that, that’s really benefited our numbers and supports our mission of being a regional university.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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