PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A new, state government-funded website displays on one of its key pages an endorsement from a politically conservative organization regarding the economic return that students receive from South Dakota’s public universities.

The website, Our Dakota Dreams, rolled out earlier this summer as a joint product from the state Board of Regents and the state Department of Education. Its purpose is to help influence prospective students to choose to attend one of South Dakota’s six public universities and four public technical colleges.

Governor Kristi Noem, who appoints the regents, challenged each of them in a May 25 letter to address various issues, including stagnant enrollment at the state’s university campuses. The regents began a deep dive into the enrollment question at their planning retreat earlier this month.

The statement currently on the site’s Exploring College page reads, “The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity says South Dakota has the best state university system measured by return on investment for students.”

That is a reference to a December 12, 2022, analysis by FREOPP writer Preston Cooper that ranked the 50 states’ public-university systems by price and outcome. He found that South Dakota placed first in return on investment, followed by Minnesota and Iowa.

Shuree Mortenson, director of communications in the regents’ central office, defended the statement. She told KELOLAND News that the foundation’s study was “featured on multiple higher education platforms.”

“The research was added to the Our Dakota Dreams website because it was a comprehensive study featuring South Dakota’s public universities and technical colleges. The study aligned well with the ODD website, highlighting all our state’s public post-secondary education options,” she said.

The study captured lifetime degree income compared to the cost of tuition and overall living expenses, according to Mortenson.

“South Dakota students encounter some of the lowest total costs for public universities in the region, which is reflected in the nation’s lowest student debt totals and a loan default rate of only one percent for those who attended a BOR university,” Mortenson said.

She continued, “The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, described as a non-partisan, public policy think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity for those with incomes or wealth below the U.S. median, echoed what we believe at the South Dakota Board of Regents — our public universities are a smart investment and offer a great return on investment.”

Here’s how the foundation described itself on its most-recent IRS 990 filing: “The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity conducts original research on expanding economic opportunity to those who least have it. FREOPP is committed to deploying the nation’s leading scholars and the tools of individual liberty, free enterprise, technological innovation, and pluralism to serve this mission. All research conducted by FREOPP considers the impact of public policies and proposed reforms on those with incomes or wealth below the U.S. median.”

Avik Roy founded FREOPP in 2016, with co-founder Ames Brown, and continues as its president. Before starting the foundation, Roy served in the presidential campaigns of Republicans Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Marco Rubio.

Vivek Ramaswamy, who’s currently a candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination for U.S. president, has also served on the foundation’s board. Another board member, Lanhee Chen, was chief policy advisor to Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, advised Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, has been a policy advisor to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and last year ran as a Republican candidate for statewide office in California.

Nonetheless, FREOPP’s website says it is “(a) non-profit, non-partisan think tank improving the lives of Americans on the bottom half of the economic ladder using freedom, innovation, & pluralism.”

KELOLAND News asked Mortenson how the study came to the attention of the regents’ central office.

“We monitor various higher education news sites and have media alerts set for all our campuses and the Board of Regents. This study was noted during a Our Dakota Dreams coalition meeting, whose members include representatives from the Board of Regents central office, Board of Regents universities, the Board of Technical Education colleges, the Department of Education, and other stakeholders,” she said. “I believe we all came across the study through online media alerts and distribution from within the coalition or our respective campuses.”