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Tim Downs, president of Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., stands at the entrance to the NSU campus. IMAGE: NSU

Philanthropy matters at state-run colleges and universities

ABERDEEN, S.D. – Throughout my 30 years in higher education, I’ve lived in communities comprised of ardent university advocates – and in places where community members simply acknowledge a campus exists. When I took over as the 17th president of Northern State University in 2016, I immediately felt an overwhelming level of support from the community of Aberdeen.

Case in point: the recent announcement that our foundation has already secured $25 million in pledges for our Educational Impact Campaign ( This $45 million campaign focuses on a new School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, two new athletic and recreation fields and an on-campus regional sports complex for our football and softball teams.

Once this campaign is complete, NSU will be the recipient of more than $100 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade.

In a community of only 30,000 people and an institution with 3,600 students, that is a historic level of support – and it’s crucial due to the growing importance of philanthropy in higher education. According to the South Dakota Board of Regents, over the past 20 years, only 4 percent of funds from infrastructure and building projects have come from South Dakota state dollars. That’s more than $1 billion that our six South Dakota Board of Regents institutions have needed to generate.

According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (, charitable giving to education is projected to rise 6 percent in 2018, with overall charitable giving in the United States growing at 3.8 percent. All types of donors – individuals, foundations, corporations and estates – are likely to increase their annual giving, with individuals leading the philanthropic charge.

In a time of heightened concern over state budgets, our campus has taken an entrepreneurial approach. Fortunately for Northern State — and the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is also a Regents institution – our stakeholders stepped up in a transformational way.

In broad terms, the $100-plus million is divided out like this:

■ $40 million to classroom buildings

■ $30 million to residence halls

■ $30 million to athletics

■ $15 million to the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

■ A recent donation of $5 million in scholarships

This funding revolves around the entire student experience. It is my belief that in order for universities to succeed, we must create worthwhile and unique experiences for our students. We can no longer expect students to show up at our doors; all of higher education is fighting for the same piece of the pie, namely recruiting the same students.

Our two institutions have a dream. We aspire to offer a superb education and facilities for blind and visually impaired students, as well as provide the best training for instructors of the visually impaired in the nation. This is not just for the NSU Millicent Atkins School of Education; we have high aspirations for all students, faculty and staff – regardless of their program or major.

In 2017, the South Dakota Board of Regents and the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry produced an economic impact report confirming that Northern State University generates $229 million in annual economic impact, from a state investment of only $12.9 million. This return did not go unnoticed; in fact, it prompted a flurry of conversations on how our community can turn that amount into $250 million – or even $300 million.

Higher education is and will remain a worthwhile investment, and Northern State is blessed to have supporters who agree.

I know from 30 years of experience that not all communities have the ability to support their institutions at the level of our stakeholders. I also believe that in order to venture ahead, colleges and universities will need to embrace philanthropic supporters and organizations.

I speak for the Aberdeen region when I say: thank you to our investors, and go Wolves!

Tim Downs


Northern State University

Aberdeen, S.D.