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Higher ed board president says DSU’s enrollment should go up after accreditation decision

Press Photo by Bryan Horwath State Board of Higher Education President Kirsten Diederich addresses a gathering of Dickinson State University faculty members, administrators and students Friday in Murphy Hall on the DSU campus.

Likening Dickinson State University’s issues with the Higher Learning Commission to the University of North Dakota’s drawn-out saga pertaining to its former “Fighting Sioux” nickname, the State Board of Higher Education president on Friday said she expects DSU’s dwindling enrollment to reverse course soon.

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“You have gone through a very difficult time,” Diederich said while addressing about 40 DSU faculty, administrators and students during an open forum on campus prior to the university’s fall commencement ceremonies.

“In fact, I think you have gone through something even worse than what UND went through with the Sioux logo because this was accreditation.”

Though DSU was placed “on notice” by the HLC, a national college accrediting agency, in 2012 after enrollment improprieties were made public, the university was vindicated last month when the HLC’s board decided to remove the “on notice” label amid a glowing recommendation from an agency visiting team.

Stating “it has been a rough couple of years” at DSU as the school’s enrollment numbers have “hit rock bottom,” Department of Nursing chair Mary Anne Marsh asked Diederich what plans the SBHE has to help boost not only DSU’s enrollment, but also its long-range funding outlook.

Diederich said part of that answer could be rooted in the university system’s “Pathways to Student Success,” initiative. It is controversial in some education circles and was originally proposed by Hamid Shirvani, the North Dakota University System’s former chancellor.

“The board is going to have a special meeting Jan. 17 to discuss Pathways,” Diederich said. “We need to decide what the goal is for Pathways. Originally, I think the goal was viewed as, if students were to find the best pathway to their success, they would go to the institution that best fits them. When that happened, the thought was that there would be a trickledown and people in this community would be in a golden position if, for example, DSU was the best fit. But this has to be a data-driven decision.”

Diederich said she expects DSU’s declining enrollment numbers — school officials reported an official headcount of 1,449 students in the recently completed fall semester, which is down more than 40 percent in the past three years — to climb as time goes on following the HLC’s affirmation.

“Because of what happened, you would expect to see a little dip in enrollment,” Diederich said. “Students were getting the message that (DSU) wasn’t accredited, which is not the case — you were accredited. Now we have this great result that says you passed with flying colors and I would expect those enrollment numbers to go up just from having that off the table.”

Diederich said decisions need to be made going forward about the role Board of Higher Education members have in regard to certain endeavors, such as lobbying for funding at the state Legislature.

Chip Poland, chair of DSU’s Department of Agriculture and Technical Studies, said he was concerned about certain schools in the state being classified as “tier two” institutions, though DSU represents the only North Dakota four-year option west of the Missouri River.

“I can only speak for my department, but we feel we have unique programs,” Poland said. “Part of my concern is that, the way Pathways is communicated, I’m not sure where a place like Dickinson State sits in the minds of parents and prospective students. It seems like, at times, we hear things that would encourage students to go in a different direction (than DSU). It seems like we need to all be on the same message.”

Though she said she didn’t have a specific answer or solution addressing Poland’s concern, Diederich said she agreed with him and acknowledged a divide at times between western and eastern North Dakota interests, especially in higher education.

“We do need to communicate better and actually find out what the goals are for Pathways,” Diederich said. “We’ll have this debate in January. I agree that we need to present this better. I know that there’s feeling that the eastern side of the state is so heavy and that they get all of the attention while the western side is making all the money and has issues that people can’t even imagine.”

Diederich, who has served as the board’s president since July, will return to Dickinson for a regular meeting of the Board of Higher Education on April 24 at DSU.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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