South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, Black Hills State University and Western Dakota Tech are teaming up on a series of initiatives designed to enhance student flexibility in western South Dakota.
"It's somewhat rare to have three sitting presidents come together," BHSU President Thomas Jackson said Tuesday. "But we're working collaboratively on getting students to the same goal from three different starting points."
Admission to both WDT and BHSU, joint fundraisers and marketing initiatives, and Mines' students accompanying BHSU students on international service learning trips to Botswana are among plans being developed by the campus presidents.
The concerns that are driving the new initiative are similar for the three schools: stagnant West River post-secondary enrollment and a limited resource stream from state government.
"As soon as I got here in 2015, Dr. Jackson reached out and said, 'We need to talk,'" said Ann Bolman, president of WDT in Rapid City. Conversations between herself, Jackson and then-Mines President Heather Wilson focused on everything from sharing faculty to developing two-plus-two curriculum, where students start at WDT and finish at Mines.
"When Dr. (Jim) Rankin arrived at Mines, he very quickly wanted to open up conversation," she said.
The two universities and technical college share the same target demographic and this creates a challenge. Bolman called enrollment at WDT "flat." Both BHSU in Spearfish and Mines in Rapid City lost 5 percent of their full-time students over the past year. All presidents say they aim to make life easier for the student roving between institutions.
"In South Dakota, because the technical colleges and universities have not really developed together, the way we have our coursework doesn't naturally line up," Bolman said.
Many articulation agreements already exist — for example, a student who completes a freshman English class at WDT can have this course count toward a general education requirement at BHSU. However, the school presidents envision greater opportunities for sharing resources and programming across a range of fields, including those still on the drawing board.
One example is the developing major of mechanician. Bolman said the mining industry wants employees who have the theoretical foundation behind mining sciences but also the technical know-how to operate and repair equipment. A student might start at WDT and finish at Mines in a two-plus-two arrangement.
Rankin said graduates of the engineering programs told him when he took the job earlier this year they desired business acumen. He foresees students receiving Masters of Business Administration degrees through a partnership with BHSU.
"They have that expertise," Rankin said. "And we have ours."
As collaboration continues, however, the presidents don't expect the development of a West River University, with three separate campuses. President Jackson, an alum of Southwest State University in Marshall, Minn., said he wrote a letter when the college considered changing names 20 years ago.
"I wouldn't expect that here," he said. "You lose some identity when that happens."
But he did note whether students attend public college in Vermillion, Brookings or Spearfish, the transcripts all come from Pierre.