Enrollment in the Beacom College of Computer and Cyber Sciences at Dakota State University remains strong, increasing 3.1%, at a time when college enrollment across the state is declining.
"We anticipate we will continue to grow," said DSU President Jose-Marie Griffiths. She noted the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated technology can be helpful in overcoming challenges in today's world.
"It can't do everything, but it can be helpful," she said.
Earlier this week, Brian Maher, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents, announced fall enrollment is down 2.8% in the state's six public universities. When total enrollment is considered, DSU follows that trend. A decrease of 2.5% was seen.
Griffiths attributes the decrease to two factors. First, DSU transferred South Dakota's respiratory care degree program to South Dakota State University, in effect transferring that student population to another campus. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected enrollment in several ways.
International students have been unable to get visas, though this is easing, according to Jim Moran, vice president for academic affairs. By spring, or perhaps not until fall 2021, new international students may be able to enroll in classes at DSU.
The pandemic is also keeping students closer to home, according to Griffiths. Travel restrictions due to quarantines are contributing to this. However, the university also has fewer out-of-state students on campus, suggesting families want to stay together during the public health crisis.
"I think there are a few students who are going to stay at home and take courses online," Griffiths said.
However, in considering the big picture, university administrators are not concerned about the decrease after seeing enrollment grow in recent years.
"We actually feel pretty good about where we're at," Moran said.
In the spring, the national education press was predicting fall enrollment could be reduced by as much as 20%, according to Griffiths. This did not prove to be accurate. While noting earlier this month that early enrollment numbers are mixed, Forbes reported some universities are actually reporting increases this year, including Georgia State University, which reported its largest freshman class in history.
Too, modest declines at five of South Dakota's six public universities -- Northern State University saw an increase of four students -- are somewhat balanced by other factors which are more hopeful. Among these is retention. Statewide, student retention from fall 2019 to fall 2020 is at 81%, according to Maher.
"All of our institutions have put in good effort and good work prepandemic," he said during a teleconference on Wednesday.
While DSU has not achieved this level, retention rates have increased from 65.7% to 71.4% in recent years. Moran credits this increase to student confidence in DSU programs.
"Our continuing students have faith in the quality of education here," he said, adding that they "believe in us and believe in themselves."
University administrators are also pleased to see enrolled students taking more classes. This is determined by comparing the headcount to the number of full-time-equivalent (FTE) students. Student headcount has decreased 2.5%, but the decrease in FTE is only 0.83%.
"This is a positive trend," Griffiths said in the Regents teleconference on Wednesday. "Research has shown that students who take a full-time class load are more likely to eventually achieve their desired degree."
While DSU has not held commencement exercises for the school's Class of 2020, the university has seen an increase in the number of degrees awarded in recent years. Griffiths noted the number of degrees awarded to the most recent graduating class showed an increase of 27%.
Too, the campus has seen significant jumps in enrollment each time a new building on campus has been opened. Griffiths said this happened when The Courtyard residence hall opened in 2017 and again when the Madison Cyber Labs opened in 2019.
"I think we'll have a big jump when we open the new residence hall," she said, pointing through a conference room window in Heston Hall toward Residence Village, which is currently under construction at the corner of N. Washington Ave. and N.E. 8th St. It is scheduled for occupancy in 2021.
The new residence hall also points to another reason DSU administrators are satisfied with this year's enrollment.
"We're basically full," Griffiths said succinctly.
On-campus enrollment this fall is 1,262 undergraduates and 46 graduate students. As in recent years, the residence hall capacity is nearly 100%. The university did set aside approximately 4% of rooms for students who needed to quarantine or isolate. Of the remaining residence hall spaces, 97% are occupied.
Griffiths and Moran credit staff and faculty for this year's strong enrollment numbers. Admissions and enrollment staff, with the support of the university's IT services, responded very quickly to the decision to close the campus in March.
"Everything we do in recruiting students involves getting them to visit campus," Griffiths explained.
Students who visit campus are more likely to enroll at DSU than students who do not. When the campus closed, admissions staff had to revamp their approach.
"They had to conduct virtual presentations," Griffiths said. "They also created a virtual tour."
The staff developed ways to register students, have face-to-face contact with potential students, and keep in touch with both students and their parents through the summer months. Some of the newly developed approaches will be integrated into the university's best practices, according to Griffiths.
She praised these staff members in a press release, saying, "The many staff involved in our admissions activities came together with energy, enthusiasm, creativity and skill to develop new systems and virtual activities to continue their recruitment and registration work. They never skipped a beat. We are so very proud of both their efforts and their results."
Moran talked about efforts of faculty to adapt to the unexpected and unprecedented closure of the campus in March. He said faculty adapted, using technology to engage students. Those who were not tech savvy were mentored by those who were.
That, he stated, made a difference in enrollment through student retention.
"People didn't leave," he said. "They stayed with us."
As a result of all these efforts, enrollment for the fall semester is better than expected in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. DSU has 3,186 students enrolled. Of these, 2,740 are undergraduate students, including 386 first-year freshmen.
DSU's 446 graduate students are enrolled in master's, certificate and doctoral programs. Graduate students account for 14% of the student body.
An increase was seen in online-only enrollment. This year, 1,759 students are enrolled taking credits equal to 741.51 FTE. This reflects more than a 3% increase in the number of students and more than an 8% increase in FTE over fall 2019.