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Tech school enrollment on the rise in South Dakota

As tech school enrollment dips across the country, one state is seeing gains.

Enrollment at tech schools in South Dakota, in particular, is on the rise. A recent news release from the South Dakota Board of Technical Education notes a 4.3 percent enrollment increase over fall 2018.

The unduplicated headcount for the fall 2019 term was 7,122 students, an increase of 4.3 percent or 297 students over fall 2018. Unduplicated headcount includes all full-time, part-time, and dual-credit students, according to BTE.

The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students in fall 2019, which is based on total credit hours generated by all students in the system, is 5,668, down about a tenth of a percent from last year.

“South Dakota is home to some of the best technical institutions in the country. Our institutions continue to provide a high-quality technical education that leads to placement in high-paying, rewarding careers,” said Nick Wendell, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Technical Education. “While enrollment at two-year colleges trends downward nationally, South Dakota students and families have continued to see the value in pursuing technical degrees. Partnerships with industry leaders, the governor and state legislators have allowed our technical institutions to create state-of-the-art environments to prepare the next generation of South Dakota workers.” 

One school benefitting from an enrollment bump is Western Dakota Technical Institute. WDTI has seen a 14.5 percent increase in unduplicated headcount since last fall.

WDTI President Ann Bolman said those gains can be attributed to three areas. The first and most important is to get the school’s advisory boards highly involved with the campus, Bolman said.

“Every program that we have at Western Dakota has an advisory board, made up of employers and other professionals in the field,” she said. “So we have really worked hard to have our advisory board members and our faculty members be partners.”

Bolman said this allows advisory board members to speak up when they see changes in their respective industry and relay those changes to faculty so they can make adjustments to their curriculum for students.

“I've worked in higher ed for a long time. It's really hard to get those dynamics to work out like they have in here, but it really has paid off,” she said.

Last year, after doing a post-graduation survey, it was found that WDTI had a 98 percent job placement rate.

The school is also working to make sure that student processes, like admissions and financial aid, are easier for students. The final piece involves the school’s Success Center, which helps advise students and reach out to them if they are missing class often or have a slip in grades. The student’s “coach” is a go-between for the student between themselves and faculty; also, the coach can connect them with other resources in the community. This also builds retention numbers. A local foundation has provided a grant to help make the coaching possible.

Other enrollment

Meanwhile, enrollment across the rest of the region is mixed with North and South Dakota’s “flagship” universities all seeing a dip in the fall.

Regional university enrollment was mixed in North Dakota, with Mayville State setting yet another enrollment record this year. 

Overall enrollment numbers are down about 2 percent from last year in the North Dakota University System, but State Board of Higher Education members noted in a recent meeting that the data is still fresh and it will be important to take time to analyze that data before moving forward. Total fall headcount in the North Dakota University System is 44,938 students across the 11 campuses. UND’s overall enrollment was 13,581; North Dakota State University's count was 13,173. Both were down over last year.

“There’s a lot of diversity with how each institution operates and there are different things happening at each (school,)” SBHE Chairman Nick Hacker said, applauding the schools for their work. “Our enrollment, for all effective purposes, is fairly stable.”

Numbers were also up at the University of Minnesota Crookston this fall. Overall, the University of Minnesota system saw about a 1,000-student bump in fall 2019.

Enrollment at Northland Community and Technical College, with campuses in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, Minn., was down slightly this year.

NCTC’s enrollment dropped about 6 percent this year from last fall, President Dennis Bona said. Enrollment has been flat at NCTC in recent years after a drop in the mid-2000’s around the economic downturn in the U.S. Bona said he’s satisfied with the school’s enrollment as many community colleges across the nation see steep drops.

“We’re doing very, very well to stay flat,” he said. 

Bona said graduates are also able to find jobs. Of the about 3,000 students that attend NCTC in some way, shape or form, about 1,800 of them are North Dakota residents, Bona said. About 85 percent of those graduates go on to take jobs and live in the region, he added, giving back to the local area.

Though there was a drop in enrollment, the college was recently ranked by WalletHub in the top 10 for community colleges in the United States, a stat of which NCTC is very proud, Bona said. The study looks at hundreds of colleges across the country and ranks schools on a number of criteria, including student outcomes.

Enrollment was up at two of North Dakota’s private schools, the University of Mary and University of Jamestown.

The latest numbers released from the University of Jamestown show that 1,135 students are enrolled, an increase of 3.3 percent over last year. It’s the second-highest enrollment in UJ history.

University of Jamestown President Polly Peterson said the university has been focused on retaining students, while also recruiting students to be UJ alumni.

About 55 percent of UJ’s enrollment are students from North Dakota. The university also has a large student population from western Minnesota, as well as Washington and California, where there are many alumni. Peterson said numbers are also on the rise from Arizona.

Like WDTI, UJ has also been working on retainment. The university recently remodeled the lower level of its library into a student success center to help students with a wide array of questions in an easy-to-access spot. It has also gotten together with local partners to help students with mental health and health services.

Peterson said they also encourage faculty to eat lunch with students to help bridge gaps and make it easier for students to reach out to a professor when they’re struggling.

“Family and food go together,” she said. “It breaks down barriers, it makes it easier. Sometimes it's less threatening. If you see a faculty member walking by your table at lunch, and they stopped to say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ And you can say, ‘you know, can I come and see you?’”

Peterson said making those simple changes can help drive retention rates and help students actually graduate, while also helping enrollment numbers.

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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