RAPID CITY, S.D. – Instead of seeing student numbers drop, which might seem a more likely scenario during a worldwide pandemic, a technical college in South Dakota has instead seen a significant increase in student enrollment.

Western Dakota Tech, a technical college located in Rapid City, increased its student enrollment by 8.3%, according to President Ann Bolman. Or to put it another way, it broke last year’s record of 1,247 students for fall semester with this year’s number of 1,350 students.

Bolman said the school generally has a high placement rate, but she attributes this year’s success to at least a couple of things: an active and innovative advisory committee, and a track record of placing students in qualified jobs after they graduate.

The college offers an array of programs, including one on health care that she said is “pretty maxed out,” where students can learn such things as becoming a medical technician. It also offers courses in electrician, plumping, welding and environmental engineering, to name a few, as a well as computer-aided design and automotive courses.

Students know about the school’s reputation, she said, and it is appealing to them. Not to mention, there are many technical jobs ready to be filled in the region and attending the college is a fairly quick way of getting from the classroom into the labor market.

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“You know, we have a really strong placement rate,” she said. “A lot of students have jobs before they even graduate.”

She said all of the programs experienced increased student numbers this fall, but most notably in the business and nursing programs, which coincides with a number of the jobs available in the region. The school provides the tools and instruction students need to find success both inside and outside the classroom. She also attributes the school’s popularity and success rate to something else: its advisory committee.

“I think the word is getting out that Western Dakota Tech takes very seriously the input from our advisory committee,” she said. “We have a really robust planning system. … I think people who live in western South Dakota, which is where most of our students come from, they really love this area and want to stay here. They know we've got programs that are in fields where there's very high demand, that the careers pay well, and that employers have been really happy with the skills that our students learn while they're here. I think it's a winning combination that we developed over the last few years. … I think getting a tightened record with our advisory board is huge. And it really has been, I think, the key – the biggest key to our success.”

Success, of course, comes in many flavors and the school has enhanced aspects of the college experience, most notably reworking its financial aid process. It also has ramped up its scholarships opportunities, Bolman said.

She said the school is offering both online and in-person class schedules, rotation students so that they can practice social distancing. Mask also are required on campus, she said.

According to information from the school, Western Dakota Tech experienced a 25.4% increase in high school dual enrollment students – up 89 students from last fall with a total of 440 students. The college also saw an increase in surrounding area high school graduates enrolling at WDT this fall – up 17.% from fall 2019.

Western Dakota Tech graduates earn 10% above western South Dakota average earnings and its applied associate of science degree holders earn more than $12,000 above high school-only graduates in the state, according to information provided by the college.

One course that has struggled this fall, however, is the criminal justice and law enforcement courses, but given the current climate in the country it isn’t any wonder why, Bolman said, but noting the school is seeking accreditation of the program in hopes that it will help. .

“This fall, really, our enrollment is (strong) across the board with the exception of criminal justice,” she said.

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com