South Dakota, at last, launches freedom scholarship

Greta Goede, Assistant News Editor

A new South Dakota scholarship given out for the first time ever this fall has reached over $225 million in donations. 

The Freedom Scholarship endowment was created in 2021 and this fall is the first year the scholarships were given to students attending South Dakota universities and colleges. The amount given out this year was $5.1 million, said Elli Haerter, Freedom Scholarship coordinator. 

“Each year that number will grow and grow, next year a little bit more will be given out,” she said. 

Over 1,200 students have accepted Freedom Scholarships this year and the awards range from $1,500 to $5,000 according to Haerter. The universities set the amount for the recipients.

Senate Bill 171 first authorized $50 million to be distributed for the scholarship but with donors, it is now up to $225 million in commitments. The scholarships are given to students who attend South Dakota colleges, in total there are 11 schools across the state that participate in the scholarship, including public universities, private colleges and tribal institutions. 

The idea started at the end of 2020 with funds from First Premier Bank and Premier Bank card. It was then sent to the legislature in 2021 and other supporters started to donate to the endowment. 

South Dakota was the last state in the U.S. to offer a needs-based scholarship. The scholarship started with $100 million from First Premier Bank and T. Denny Sanford, in partnership with the state of South Dakota and the Avera and Sanford health systems, according to an article published by South Dakota News Watch.

The scholarship was at $175 million at the beginning of September but has grown to $225 million in a little over a month after Premier donated another $50 million. Additional gifts were made  from Avera Health, Sanford Health and the State of South Dakota. 

Avera and Sanford have made 10-year commitments to donating to the endowment. 

“They will give a certain amount each year until they get up to $12 and half million each,” Haerter said. “Between the two of them, they have committed $25 million over a decade.”

The Freedom Scholarship is a needs-based scholarship, which means students fill out the FAFSA and financial aid offices determine possible recipients of the scholarships. Students must have a 2.0 GPA, seeking a 4-year degree and graduate in 5 years or less.

Students who accept the scholarship must live and work in South Dakota for 3 years. If students accept the scholarship and choose to move out of state, or drop out of college, the scholarship reverts to a loan and must be paid back. 

In an article published by South Dakota News Watch, Dana Dykhouse, who chairs the Freedom Scholarship board, said it is a worthy investment in the interest of strengthening the state workforce. From 2015-2019, only 53% of the nearly 35,000 students who graduated from South Dakota’s six public universities were working for in-state employers one year past their graduation.

“I hope other businesses and organizations in South Dakota will join this effort to support needs-based scholarships that build our future workforce and invite our graduates to stay here and make South Dakota even better,” Haerter said in a press release. 

478 students who are attending SDSU received a Freedom Scholarship, 186 of which are enrolled for the first time. Merci Arbach, an SDSU student and Sioux Falls Washington graduate, said in a press release the scholarship has allowed her to have more financial freedom. 

“It helps more than just Sioux Falls – it’s the community of South Dakota,” Arbach said. “I don’t actually have words to express my gratitude other than thank you.” 

Universities determine who might qualify and email those students with directions on how to apply, depending on what the university chooses to do. If you want to apply for the Freedom Scholarship, reach out to the school’s financial aid office or go to the South Dakota Freedom Scholarship website to learn more.

Eligible Institutions: 

  • Augustana University
  • Black Hills State University
  • Dakota State University
  • Dakota Wesleyan University
  • Oglala Lakota College
  • Presentation College 
  • Sinte Gleska University
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
  • South Dakota State University
  • University of Sioux Falls
  • University of South Dakota
  • Northern State University
  • Mount Marty University