The state Board of Regents is scheduled to discuss on Friday a report whose bottom line is stunning. The report looks at where South Dakota high school graduates from the class of 2007-2008 chose to continue their educations that fall.
That our largest public campus, South Dakota State University at Brookings, topped the list with 1,273 wasn't surprising.
Nor was it too surprising to see the University of South Dakota at Vermillion at No. 2 with 718.
The eyebrows went up a bit over the third slot. There was Black Hills State University at Spearfish with 395.
The shockers came in the fourth through seventh spots.
They were Lake Area Technical Institute at Watertown 387; Southeast Technical Institute at Sioux Falls 320; Western Dakota Technical Institute at Rapid City 288; and Mitchell Technical Institute at 252.
LATI stood out as the largest of the public tech schools and for being nearly as popular as Black Hills State.
But the stunner comes when the tech enrollments are tallied.
LATI and Southeast combined drew more first-time freshmen than did USD. The four techs together attracted nearly as many as did SDSU.
And every one of the techs surpassed the smaller campuses in the regents' system: Northern State University at Aberdeen 234, Dakota State University at Madison 184 and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology at Rapid City 178.
The net-migration report that's been assembled for the regents' discussion doesn't break out whether any, or how many, of those class of 2007-2008 graduates enrolled at the regents' university centers at Sioux Falls, Pierre or Rapid City.
Students who went to one of the centers would have been counted as having enrolled at one of the traditional state universities, depending upon which university was providing a specific student's courses at the center.
That the four public technical institutes have become so popular and therefore so important to South Dakota's economy is a take-away that perhaps wasn't intended by the regents.
The regents govern the state universities, but the technical institutes are operated by their local school districts and are under the general supervision of the state Board of Education.
What can be satisfying to both state boards, however, is that the 10 public institutions were so popular with the 2007-2008 graduates.
They ranked ahead of every private institution in South Dakota, and ahead of every public or private institution outside South Dakota.
In preparing the report, the regents' central staff sought to make a bigger point. South Dakota was a net importer of college freshmen in fall 2008.
Of 9,142 students who graduated in the class of 2007-2008, there were 1,564 who left South Dakota for a college or university outside our state's borders.
On the other hand, there were 7,157 first-time freshmen who enrolled in South Dakota institutions that fall, and 2,134 came from outside South Dakota.
That would be a net gain of 570 statewide, covering all institutions.
That is considered significant by state-university officials because it suggests South Dakota isn't experiencing a brain drain.
On the other hand, the regents face a challenge. The regents system attracted 2,982 of the South Dakota 2007-2008 graduates. That was nearly 33 percent.
Put another way, two of three of those graduates chose someplace or something to do other than go to a state university that fall.
If high school classes continue to remain at their recent sizes or even become smaller, there likely will be a need for the regents to attract a greater percentage of South Dakota high school graduates -- and for more students from other places to enroll at South Dakota's public universities.
That will be necessary for the universities' financial health, and to better feed our state's workforce in the jobs where college degrees are preferred or required.
The regents, without any clear directive from the Legislature or from the state constitution, have taken it upon themselves to set the state universities on a mission: Replenish the workforce as the large generation of baby-boomers retires.
Whether the Legislature agrees is critical, because the Legislature controls a substantial chunk of the regents' funding.
The Legislature hasn't been so inclined in recent decades. Lawmakers have been generally supportive of funding for new research programs that carry the potential for economic development.
But general operational funding from the Legislature hasn't increased sufficiently to keep up with the increases in tuition and fees that the regents have been imposing, at an average rate of approximately 6 percent more annually.
That the six traditional state universities, three state university centers and the four public technical institutes so dominate higher education in South Dakota is a sign of academic strength.
It is also, to some extent, a sign of affordability, despite the ever-increasing tuitions, and the higher rates charged for university-center courses.
Where do others rank?
Augustana College in Sioux Falls stood in the No. 11 slot with 163. Next were University of Sioux Falls at 152, followed by Mount Marty College at Yankton with 121, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln 107 and Dakota Wesleyan University at Mitchell 104.
North Dakota State University's main campus at Fargo drew 85. Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation had 82, followed by Minnesota State University at Mankato with 74, the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis-St. Paul 57, Minnesota State University-Moorhead 56 and Presentation College at Aberdeen 51.
Eight other institutions spread across North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Wyoming attracted from 28 to 50 of those South Dakota high school graduates. A ninth, Colorado Technical University at Sioux Falls, enrolled 29.
The hidden message perhaps in the net-migration report the regents will discuss Friday is what can be learned from South Dakota's technical institutes for attracting South Dakota students.
Could it be as simple as jobs, jobs, jobs?