updated 9/27/2006 12:40:29 PM ET 2006-09-27T16:40:29

PIERRE, S.D. — Enrollment at the six state-owned universities in South Dakota increased only slightly this fall, but it's still an all-time record high.

Board of Regents Executive Director Tad Perry said there are 30,901 students taking classes in the public university system. That's up 181 students from a year ago, or 0.59 percent, he said Wednesday.

Even though the number of high school graduates continues to decline each year in South Dakota, enrollment in the state's public universities has continued to grow for the past five years or so, Perry said.

"This all-time high enrollment for the system, in the face of declining demographic trends, reflects the importance South Dakota places on higher education," Perry said.

University enrollment is increasing because the state is prompting high school students to take courses that better prepare them for college, the state has started scholarship programs, and the Sioux Falls campus that offers courses by a number of universities is attracting more students, Perry said.

In addition, more older students are going to college, and South Dakota's universities are getting more nonresident students because of a recent cut in tuition for students from states that are not close to South Dakota, he said.

South Dakota and other states must continue to increase the number of college graduates to keep pace with the rest of the world, Perry said. More college graduates are needed to help boost the economy and to provide the health care and other services required by South Dakota's aging population, he said.

"We've got to expand that work force if we're going to meet the needs of this state long-term," Perry said.

And more South Dakotans in their 30s, 40s or 50s will return to college to get degrees or upgrade their skills, Perry said. "One thing we do know is there's going to be a continuous effect of retraining ourselves if we're going to sustain ourselves in the work force."

Enrollment was up nearly 5 percent at Dakota State University, more than 3 percent at South Dakota State University and more than 1 percent at the University of South Dakota. Perry said those increases are partly explained by the growth in students taking courses offered by those three schools at the Sioux Falls campus. The number of students in Sioux Falls grew by about 3 percent this fall, he said.

Black Hills State University had little change in its enrollment, but enrollment dropped by more than 8 percent this fall at both Northern State University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Mining school sees drop
The enrollment decline at the School of Mines and Technology is due to last year's increase in admission requirements, Perry said. Enrollment will bounce back once students realize they need to start preparing better in high school for the science and engineering school, he said.

"They wanted to make sure students who entered Tech would have a good chance of success in completing the programs," Perry said. "They're going to be all right."

Northern State University's enrollment on campus is remaining stable, but its enrollment numbers dropped because it boosted admission requirements for its Rising Scholars Program, which offers college courses to high school students in some school districts, he said.

Northern State also will attract more students by taking part in the Sioux Falls campus and by offering its new degree program in banking and finance, Perry said. "This is a niche they are going to be successful at."

The enrollment increase is due to changes in the numbers of first-time freshmen, transfers, students returning after being out of school, and a higher retention rate among existing students, Perry said.

The number of first-time freshmen from South Dakota high schools declined from 2,929 a year ago to 2,925 this year, a drop of four students. But that means a much higher percentage of high school graduates are attending college because the total number of high school graduates fell by 488 from 2005 to 2006, Perry said.

The number of full-time equivalent students, based on total credit hours generated by all students within the university system, increased by 55 students, or 0.23 percent, he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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