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SD Trade Schools Seen as Opportunity During Crisis

This fall, 7,177 students are enrolled at South Dakota's four technical colleges. That compares with 7,122 in fall 2019. (Adobe Stock)
This fall, 7,177 students are enrolled at South Dakota's four technical colleges. That compares with 7,122 in fall 2019. (Adobe Stock)
October 7, 2020

PIERRE, S.D. -- South Dakota's public universities are showing an overall decline in enrollment this fall. But the student population for technical colleges has remained steady, and administrators say their programs are providing a possible balance for people affected by the pandemic.

Not all technical schools have seen a fall enrollment spike, but the overall numbers show a slight increase, of 55 students.

At the South Dakota Board of Technical Education, Executive Director Nick Wendell said, like universities, they feared a big drop-off -- and were relieved to find out that didn't happen.

As students and families make tough choices in this environment, he pointed out that a quicker path toward job placement might get more focus.

"Understanding that there's always a bit of uncertainty in the air around outcomes, and maybe more now than ever before, I think technical education is a pretty safe bet," Wendell said.

Data show that South Dakota's technical schools have among the best retention rates in the country, and a handful of institutions fare well in individual rankings.

Wendell believes the situation shouldn't diminish the importance of universities, and noted they have strong credit-transfer agreements with four-year institutions.

He said the trade schools developed a program over the summer in direct response to the crisis. It provides online course options in certain fields for those displaced by the pandemic at little or no cost.

He added they're trying to help the state's employers adapt to an evolving situation: "As we see turnover in the workplace, as we see changing expectations among our professionals, our technical colleges are preparing the future generation of workers for the state of South Dakota."

Since 2016, enrollment in the system is up by more than 600 students.

Meanwhile, the state's university system saw nearly 1,000 fewer students overall this fall. Higher-education officials have said despite the decline, they were encouraged that many remain committed to attending school in a difficult situation.

Still, the four-year schools have seen a gradual enrollment drop in recent years.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - SD