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South Dakota Public Universities See Enrollment Jump For Online Courses: An Export Industry?

The Badlands of South Dakota. Photo by IronRodArt - Royce Bair via Flickr under Creative Commons

By Paul Glader
Before the Internet, online education took the form of “distance courses” and “correspondence courses.” Places like my home state of South Dakota were early experimenters with the concept of statewide televised courses and courses by mail.
These kinds of courses were particularly helpful for people in rural parts of the country: ranchers, housewives, working adults, students who had to work on the farm and couldn’t afford the time or money to attend traditional college.
The paper of record in South Dakota – The Sioux Falls Argus Leader- published a recent report about how online education in its current digital form continues to grow in a state of roughly 800,000 people and six state universities (and myriad smaller, private universities as well). South Dakota provides a microcosmic look at the growth and opportunities of blended learning and online learning. Many students in and out of South Dakota seem to take basic pre-requisites and core classes like college math and english courses online…. and opting to take more interesting classes that are crucial to their majors in person.
Another thing the new Board of Regents report shows is that the public universities in the unpopulated state – including my alma mater The University of South Dakota – are benefitting greatly from out-of-state students (many from Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming) taking coursework online from South Dakota universities. This shows that online learning can be a great business for established institutions, an export industry of sorts. Here is a breakdown of the numbers from  the Argus-Leader report:

Online courses by the numbers in South Dakota

  • 68.9: Percent increase in students taking online college courses in South Dakota since 2007.
  • 12.2: Percent increases in students taking online college courses in South Dakota in the last fiscal year, up 1,943 students to 17,916.
  • 95.6: Percent increase in the number of out-of-state students enrolled in online classes from five years ago, up from 2,399 students to 4,603 students.
  • 10: Percent increase in University Center-Sioux Falls headcount since 2007.
  • 5.8: Percent increase at University Center-Rapid City since 2007.
  • 2.7: Percent increase at Capital University Center in Pierre since 2007.

The South Dakota Board of Regents, which govern the state universities, report notes:

In general, those students enrolling in distance-based coursework in FY2011 tended to be undergraduates (77.2%), part-time enrollers (69.6%), and females (65.3%).  “SPEC” (i.e., non-degree seeking) was the most common major code among these students.  Though most distance-based students in FY2011 were South Dakota residents, out-of-state students have come to represent an increasing share of the distance-based student body.  

only 33.2% of students taking at least one online course in FY2011 took all courses online; most distance-based students took courses through some combination of online, on- campus, and university center coursework.  Readers would do well to remain mindful of the tendency of off-campus students to mix and match courses from various on- and off-campus sites. 


In FY2011, the state’s distance education system primarily served in-state students: 73.3% of distance students were South Dakota residents (see Table 5).4. At the same time, distance delivery courses have begun to attract an increasing number of out-of-state students to Regental courses.  In FY2007, 2,399 out-of-state students enrolled in a Regental distance delivery course; by FY2011, this number had climbed 95.6% to 4,693.  Out-of-state students now occupy a larger share of distance delivery enrollments than in FY2007.  Approximately 23.9% of distance students were classified as out-of-state residents in FY2007, a figure that now stands at 26.7%.   

Meanwhile, Sarah Reinecke writes in the Argus-Leader about what it means to people in South Dakota.
Regents’ executive director Jack Warner said he’s not surprised by the increases because the system is expanding access to adults who want to further their education.

“We’re trying to make it as convenient as we can for them,” he said. “They’re increasingly motivated to get higher
education degrees because they see it as a pathway to prosperity.”

Most students taking online courses and enrolled at university centers tend to be part-time undergraduates. Warner said most are adults, ages 25 to 45, who cannot attend a traditional class setting because they’re often juggling family and work responsibilities. Despite the increasing popularity of distance learning, Warner said it won’t replace the traditional college experience.

“It’s a separate market, but a growing one,” he said. “A working adult really does need the convenience and flexibility that distance education provides.” He said the demand for online classes has been increasing for about the past 12 years. Often, higher education officials say students prefer to combine online with traditional face-to-face classes, so the regents are working to add more hybrid programs next fall, which combine the two. 

Full Story in the Argus-Leader: No campus? No problem


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