Mr. Mercer points out an important problem with our system of "university centers," the three facilities created to serve major populations removed from our actual university locations. He notes that to keep these classrooms in Sioux Falls, Pierre, and Rapid City from bleeding dry our our university towns' economies (because South Dakota's education policy is first and foremost about economic development, not enlightenment), we charge university center students an unsubsidized tuition rate of $289 per credit hour. Regular on-campus university undergraduates pay $124 per credit hour.
Board of Regents finance chief Monte Kramer reminds Mercer that university center students don't pay university support or activity fees, which bring the on-campus price for a credit hour to $244.58. Multiply the difference by full-time load of 30 credits, and you'll save $1350 by hauling you keester up to Brookings or down to Vermillion instead of taking classes in Sioux Falls.
Yet mechanical engineering major Luke Williams insists he's saving money going to the Sioux Falls university center instead of SDSU:
Williams is a Freshman Mechanical Engineering major at University Center in Sioux Falls. Eventually he'll be full time at South Dakota State University. He knows that means he'll pay more.
“I can go here and transfer up there later on and save a bunch of money,” he said. “It's huge.”
...For Williams, financials are a big factor in his choice to attend University Center instead of spending four years at SDSU. “That's the reason that I'm doing this is because I can get half here and save a bunch,” he said [Kelly Bartnick, "Students Respond to Tuition Increase," KELOLand.com, 2013.04.04].
Save a bunch of money... at University Center? Check your slide rule, engineer Williams. It's not happening on tuition and fees. Maybe Williams is counting savings on room and board, but a guy's got to eat and sleep regardless of where he takes classes. Up at SDSU, figuring four months of occupancy each semester, Williams would pay $698 a month for a shared dorm room (the university still robs us for rooms), Internet access, and chow. In Sioux Falls, he can get much more spacious digs, splitting an apartment with a buddy for a median $669 a month. Add $20 a month for Internet and an arguably spartan grocery bill of $200 a month, and Williams could keep his room and board at $555 a month. That would save him $1150 each academic year... but still leave him spending $200 more on doing his generals at the university center.
Of course, you only get to live in the dorms eight months out of the year, and they kick you out over the holidays, so you still need a place to flop back home. But one could just as easily split median $588 rent in Brookings, and still come out ahead of what one would have spent at the university center.
The only way Williams and other university center students save big money is if they stay with Mom and Dad in Sioux Falls, which is a perfectly fine way to save money. Also, given the large number of older students going back for degrees, the university centers offer savings for more mature students who already have families, mortgages, and jobs that they don't care to disrupt by moving or commuting to one of our university towns.
And that brings us back to the question of why the state is charging more for tuition at the university centers in the first place. University education is vital to economic development. It seems unfair to say to nearly 50% of the state's population that if they want to pursue a degree, we'll provide them convenient in-town classrooms on stripped down campuses, but they'll have to pay more than double the tuition rates of folks who have the luxury of moving to Madison or Spearfish for four years.
Let's reverse our trend of investing less in education. If you're a South Dakotan and you want an education, we should support you, whether you are taking your classes in Aberdeen, Pierre, or in Edgemont by Internet. The state should eliminate the in-state self-support rates and support every South Dakotan's pursuit of higher education equally.