HomeSchool Reform NewsHow South Dakota Makes Higher Education Work

How South Dakota Makes Higher Education Work

Only about 900,000 persons claim permanent residence in South Dakota, yet its 28 colleges and universities rank it third best in the nation for universities per capita, and its 50,000+ students make its higher-ed student-to-population ratio 5.76 percent, higher than North Carolina’s, Ohio’s, Pennsylvania’s, Texas’s, and Wisconsin’s, among other reputed higher-education meccas. Small as it is, if South Dakota applies lessons from its own history to the current crises in higher education, it could become an even more important force.

If you think that South Dakota is just a Great Plains version of Saudi Arabia, read a book (preferably my 2015 Little Business on the Prairie), or at least realize that North Dakota is the oil giant. Almost no fossil fuels have been found beneath South Dakota, which gets its energy from hydroelectric dams along the Missouri River, seemingly ceaseless prairie winds, and the sun, directly and via its vast cornfields.

If South Dakota applies lessons from its own history, it could become an even more important higher-ed force. The state’s Black Hills once abounded in gold, but those days are gone. For decades, the state government burnished its coffers by offering alternatives to other states’ strict regulatory policies in areas such as corporate charters, divorces, dynasty trusts, vehicle licensing, and, most infamously, credit cards. “You gotta do whatcha gotta do” could be the state motto, except only recent transplants fleeing New Jersey talk like that there.

Much of South Dakota’s economic juice comes from tourism: Americans fishing its “great lakes” in the winter, spring, and early fall; touring Mount Rushmore, Deadwood, Sturgis, and the rest of the Black Hills region served by the state’s western metropole, Rapid City, in the summer; hunting pheasant and waterfowl in the fall; and gambling year-round. Whenever the roads are open, the state’s eastern metropole, Sioux Falls, also attracts a prodigious retail trade from northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota.

Higher education constitutes yet another source of out-of-state revenue. Six universities compose the public system, which in Fall 2023 combined to enroll over 24,000 students, a figure that approaches pre-pandemic levels. Unlike some state systems, South Dakota’s units are specialized, with little overlap. They include the liberal-arts flagship (University of South Dakota or USD, with degrees in journalism, law, medicine, and the like near Yankton), the agricultural and biological sciences university (South Dakota State aka SDSU in Brookings), cybersecurity (Dakota State in Madison), and engineering and mining (South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City). Black Hills State (BHS in Spearfish) and Northern State (NSU in Aberdeen) provide business, medical, teaching, and more general credentials to students in the state’s vast western and northern expanses, respectively. Recently, BHS tried, albeit thus far unsuccessfully, to leverage its proximity to Mount Rushmore to obtain funding for a center for the study of American exceptionalism and civics. NSU has one of the nation’s few accredited, entirely online M.S. degrees in banking and finance.

Systemwide, almost two in five students hail from outside of South Dakota, because it typically offers the lowest total cost (tuition, fees, and room and board) of all the public universities in the adjacent states of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming for every type of student: resident, non-resident, undergraduate, and graduate. It also offers in-state tuition rates to students from Colorado and other more distant states. Its faculty are comparable, with almost three in four holding a terminal degree and less than a third ranked as instructor (not tenurable). Salaries are competitive when factoring in the state’s relatively low cost of living.

The state’s private universities are relatively numerous but small and of uneven quality. The state’s private universities are relatively numerous but small and of uneven quality. The largest and most selective, Augustana University (formerly “College” but renamed in 2015, partly to avoid confusion with the unaffiliated Augustana College of Rock Island, Illinois) is called “the college on wheels” because it changed location several times over its checkered history. Since merging with a normal school and settling in Sioux Falls in 1918, Augustana has suffered more booms and busts than the state’s notoriously volatile agricultural sector. It surged following the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, because the Great Recession that followed the housing and banking bust barely phased the state’s economy, which, having broken its dependence on agriculture in the 1980s, has forged slowly but steadily ahead, more tortoise than hare.

Many of the high-quality faculty lured to Augustana during that period, however, have already been lost to retirement, salary austerity, and a quiet purge of non-Woke employees orchestrated by the university’s new president, who was previously the state’s last Democratic House representative and is the daughter of its last Democratic governor. The fact that the institution draws most of its best students from the liberal suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul explains the blatant political and ideological mismatch between the university and its thoroughly red state of residence.

Sioux Falls also sports the private University of Sioux Falls (USF), which, at about 1,300 students and a 76-percent acceptance rate, is slightly smaller and less selective than Augustana. Dakota Wesleyan, located an hour west in Mitchell, has a similar acceptance rate but is much smaller, at about 650 students. Private colleges in Yankton and Aberdeen are about the same size and selectivity as Dakota Wesleyan. Each of those private institutions remains associated with a religious denomination, some more closely than others. Unless they distinguish themselves in some way, the smaller institutions, like most of their peers nationwide, seem more likely to close than to thrive over the next quarter century.

The days of National American University, a for-profit university in Rapid City with a four-percent graduation rate, also appear numbered. The company shuttered its Sioux Falls campus in 2019 and is now an entirely online institution. If it survives, it will be yet another source of out-of-state dollars for the state. Another for-profit of dubious merit that enrolled 100 students in Sioux Falls, Globe, shuttered in 2016.

Augustana and USF, though, may survive by riding the coattails of the fastest growing small metropolitan area in the United States, especially if the state university system continues to avoid a major presence in Sioux Falls, which now numbers over 200,000 persons proper. At present, only USD has a satellite campus there, catering to health and education majors. 

Currently, South Dakota’s higher-education jewels are its two-year technical colleges, including Southeastern Technical College (Sioux Falls), Lake Area Technical College (Watertown), Mitchell Technical College (Mitchell), and Western Dakota Technical College (Rapid City). These no-frills, no-nonsense institutions train people for real job openings in areas like agriculture (e.g., veterinarian technician), business (e.g., bookkeeping), construction (e.g., welding), engineering (e.g., surveying), healthcare (e.g., medical lab technician), and transportation technology (e.g., collision repair). They formed and thrived in response to the state’s chronically low unemployment rate, a major problem for businesses that find expansion in the business-friendly state slowed by a dearth of qualified workers.

In 2015, President Barack Obama gave the commencement speech at Lake Area Technical, which had been feted annually for a decade by the Aspen Institute as one of the nation’s best community colleges, due to its enviously high graduation, placement, and initial-salary rates. The Aspen Prize, Obama explained, is “basically the Oscars for great community colleges.” What makes Lake Area Technical and other South Dakota community colleges great is that they design their curricula in tandem with employers to ensure a good fit between graduates’ skills and employers’ needs.

The state’s four-year colleges and universities, public and private, cannot claim such a close match. Insiders dicker about the degree to which Augustana, SDSU, and USD have gone Woke by favoring DIE (diversity, inclusion, and equity) and CRT (critical-race theory) programs and pro-Palestine demonstrations. The current governor, however, correctly noted last year that the state’s leading universities largely have given up on “reason and logic in favor of subjectivity and relativism.”

South Dakota universities are hardly alone in their embrace of post-modernism and other leftist ideologies, but the state government seems to be passing up an opportunity to gain market share by providing a less expensive version of the old-school, reality-based curricula being revivified by new colleges and universities like Ralston, Reliance, Thales, and the University of Austin. They could take a page from the state’s long history of bucking policy precedents set elsewhere and say to prospective students, “If your primary concern is with social-justice virtue signaling, go elsewhere and protest your money away. If your primary concern is to make yourself more valuable to employers by learning how to think, not what to think, then come here. Bring a (relatively) little money, a warm coat, and snow boots.”

Returning the curriculum to reality can be achieved by putting people who believe in empirically grounded education in charge. Returning the curriculum to reality can be achieved by putting people who believe in empirically grounded education in charge and empowering them to make the necessary changes. Just hiring a Ben Sasse type is not enough. Reform leaders must have a sufficient budget and the intellectual authority to force change on faculty who labor under the misapprehension that tenure is a license to speak freely in class about matters of which they know naught.

Once it becomes clear that South Dakota universities are again serious about serious education, change will come quickly, as quality students and the nation’s remaining professors interested in positive pedagogy flock there every fall, just like geese and ducks do. Other universities in the region will then realize that most Americans dislike Woke education. They will reform themselves to stay competitive or learn to settle for infantilized students unlikely to land good jobs or donate much to the school in the future as they struggle to repay their student loans.

Originally published by The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Republished with permission.

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Robert E. Wright
Robert E. Wright
Robert E. Wright is a historian of economic policies ranging from banking to higher education to slavery, with over 20 books and 70 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters to his credit.


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