Let’s ask the question: Does SC need SC State?

Or to ask it another way, does the state of South Carolina need to keep propping up an institution that has become a money sinkhole, and is not delivering on its mission, with a 13.7 percent four-year graduation rate?

This is a question, of course, that has hovered out there since USC and other formerly white institutions were integrated: Given that other state institutions are open to all, do we need a separate college that formerly existed just for folks who couldn’t get in elsewhere?

And when we ask that, we hear various arguments for why an institution like SC State — or such private colleges as Benedict — have a greater affinity for, and understand better how to educate, a portion of the population that still lacks the advantages and support systems that middle-class whites take for granted. That such historically black institutions are better at meeting such students where they are, and lifting them to where they want to be.

And perhaps that is the case.

But at some point, we need to look at whether that job of lifting up the disadvantaged is getting done, and how much we are spending on dubious returns.


Struggling S.C. State University wants an added $13.7 million from House budget writers to pay off a $6 million state loan and improve operations at the college, which has one of the worst graduation rates in the state.

The Orangeburg college must get out “from under this cloud” to improve its graduation rate, S.C. State president Thomas Elzey said after he made the school’s budget presentation Wednesday to S.C. House members.

“The negative kind of statements about the quality of this university and the value of this university (need) to be taken off the table because we are valuable, and we do offer quality,” Elzey said.

However, legislators focused on S.C. State’s financial and academic woes.

S.C. State’s enrollment has fallen 20 percent recently but the school failed to cut its budget to match lost tuition payments. As a result, the state’s only historically black public university owes vendors $10 million in unpaid bills. To reduce costs, cuts have been made to staff and are being considered for athletics, the school’s president said.

The school wants its state taxpayer money doubled – to nearly $27 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1, including money to pay off the state loan – from $13 million this year.

That request does not include any money to pay back a $12 million state loan – to be issued over three years – that the Joint Bond Review Committee approved in December….

I added the bold-faced emphasis in those two places.

An institution that in recent months and years has only been in the news for financial and leadership failures wants its appropriation doubled to get out “from under this cloud?” And then what? What are the realistic prospects going forward? What do we really expect in terms of improvement and reduced need for state infusions of money?

When the bond review committee gave the school that $12 million “loan” in December, Gov. Haley said they “gave it away because they know it can’t be paid back.” And I’m not seeing any indications that she was wrong to say that.

So… where are we going with this? Where can we realistically expect to be in five years if the state keeps funneling in the money?

And at what point is it not worth it anymore?

Even hometown Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter says “we’re going to have to exercise some tough love” with SC State. But how much more love of any kind is it worth investing?

These are very tough questions that everyone involved is hesitant to articulate. Maybe these questions don’t occur to anyone, but that would surprise me.

There may be a million — or 27 million (wait; 39 million counting money to pay back the loan) — reasons why I’m wrong (and heartless and insensitive) to raise such questions. I hope there are. I want to hear them.

But I thought I’d play the part of the little kid in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, if only to see if y’all can come up with those great answers for me. I want to be embarrassed for having asked such silly questions.

But I ask them because it seems that we’re just stumbling along from crisis to crisis here. And I think it’s useful to step back, and ask where we’re going, and whether we want to go there, and whether what we’re doing is getting us there…

36 thoughts on “Let’s ask the question: Does SC need SC State?

  1. Mark Stewart

    I’m so old – 90% of my classmates graduated on time. Things have changed!

    Here are some South Carolina comps to the 4 yr rates:
    Furman 80%
    Wofford 78%
    Presbyterian 60%
    Converse 55%
    Cola Internat’l 53%
    Anderson 36%
    Winthrop 35%
    Cola College 32%
    Claflin 29%
    Coastal Carolina 27%
    USC Aiken 21%
    Francis Marion 16%
    Allen 11%
    Benedict Unknown (they don’t want anyone to know this metric)

    Anderson, Winthrop and Claflin are looking pretty good vs. their peers.

    Francis Marion (and I am sure others) should not escape the heat that SC State is catching as a public institution.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Affordability has declined dramatically in recent years, and a lot of students founder because of that. Then you have the LIFE scholars who can’t cut it.

    2. Pat

      I wonder how the graduation rate is calculated. Do they include day students who work part time and go to school part time? Do they include those who work full time and take a class or two as they can?

  2. Mike F.

    Given that our economy will founder without more folks with an education past college, we absolutely need S.C. State, teaching skills that businesses want. But the benign neglect by Columbia needs to end, and it needs a number of employees that matches its enrollment.

    1. Silence

      Mike F, How is it possible that SC State has dug themselves into such a massive financial shortfall, when other institutions in the state don’t seem to have had that problem? If anything, Columbia may have been too neglectful in watching SC State’s finances, so I would agree that the neglect needs to end, but disagree that it was benign.

  3. Doug Ross

    “But at some point, we need to look at whether that job of lifting up the disadvantaged is getting done, and how much we are spending on dubious returns.”

    Oh, I thought this was a discussion of public schools in many parts of South Carolina.

  4. Norm Ivey

    The difference in tuition between SC State and USC-Columbia is about $1500 a year. Factor in travel and housing expenses, and I think it’s probably pretty easy to make the case that we need SC State to provide opportunities to as many young people as possible. That’s not to say there aren’t issues that need to be addressed at State.

    The graduation rate is abysmal, but I want more data before placing all blame for that on the school. Kids leave college for a lot of reasons, and I suspect many of those who left did so for financial reasons. Throwing money at the school may not be the best fix. Find a way to reduce the cost of education for those students, and let’s see what happens to the graduation rate.

    It took me 8 years to get my 4-year degree. State’s 6-year graduation rate is 35%, almost 2.5 times the 4-year rate. Still too low, but I think it might indicate that the rate might be due more to student choices rather than what the school is doing.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      But wouldn’t those SC State students likely be better served in the technical college system?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Good question.

        South Carolina has other options — namely, our valuable tech schools — for students who can’t afford USC, or aren’t academically ready for it, or both.

        So the question becomes, what can SC State do for them that the tech colleges can’t?

        Beyond intangibles — being part of a storied tradition at a four year campus, and whatever sense of community that provides — I’m not sure what.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          I think it’s all about the intangibles, in both the sense you use it, and in the financial sense…

      2. Norm Ivey

        I don’t know–that’s why I would like to see deeper data. Are these students not finishing in four years because they can’t keep up the tuition, or because they chose the wrong school?

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Another way to frame the question: If we stipulate that SC needs something like SC State, it’s still worth asking whether SC State is fulfilling that need…

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    Keven Cohen has called to ask me to talk about this on his radio show for a few minutes starting at 4:10.

    I told him I’m not an expert, and don’t really know any more than what I wrote above. I’m just raising questions.

    He still wants me on, so I’m going to do it.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Hmmm. So I see that black students overall across the state are doing a little better on the graduation rate. Which suggests that SC State is dragging that average down, not pulling it up…

      Assuming I’m reading that right.

      1. Andrew G

        Looking at that link, looks like Francis Marion, Lander, USC Upstate and SC State all have abysmal graduation numbers.

        I get it that those particular schools have students who were probably marginal to some degree in high school, perhaps first generation college attendees, come from poorer backgrounds, etc. The reason they ended up in what is essentially the third tier of the South Carolina higher ed system.

        But yes, I’m for reevaluating SC’s four year system and what we want to accomplish going forward.

        1. Laura

          If I remember correctly from something I read a while back, the graduation percentage does not factor in students who transfer out of the school which is important to note. There are many students who go to Lander/USC Upstate/etc. with hopes of it being a stepping stone a bigger, more prestigious institution. It is important to know on what basis the data is founded and what it does and does not include…..

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    I understand the importance of HBCU to the black community, but along with Benedict and Allen, SC State seems more of a drain on potential black graduates than a boon nowadays.

  8. Doug Ross

    Let’s be real – the only reason many students attend SC State is because the standards for acceptance are low and grants/ low interest loans are easily obtained. If SC State went away, there would be little impact on the students, only on the faculty and administration. The best students would find other options, the rest probably shouldn’t be in college anyway.

    1. Barry

      Unless you have the tune-in app, his station is so weak it’s impossible to hear over most of Columbia.

  9. Juan Caruso

    The question is moot, because regardless of the answer, we will have a SC State if only to provide some high-paying jobs for educators and administrators from minority communities. Unfortunately, the poor leadership exercised by top leaders has tolerated repetitive mismanagement in the very leadership we want to be role models for minority youth.

    A better question then, in my opinion, is must SC taxpayers tolerate the poor managent and lax internal controls tolerated by our legislature? This is not the first time SC State mismanagement has become a serious issue.

    Were it a bankrupt business (isn’t it really?) the prescription might entail a “work out’ with appointment of an independent Financial officer (qualified like a CPA) to keep our legislature informed of adherence to sound budgetary practices. This is something that makes financial sense, but has been foreign to politicians who luxuriate in such poor practices at even higher levels.

    1. Silence

      Juan, despite your frequent snark and crazed anti-attorney rants, you have hit the nail on the head, here. SC State will continue to stick around because it provides a lot of jobs for Political Cronies and funnels a lot of money into the African-American community. Also, I think it’s the number one source for Richland School District 1 teachers. Which says a lot, about both institutions.

  10. Barry

    There are better options in SC for college than SC State, Most students with options (accepted at other schools) know that.

  11. Karen Pearson

    Isn’t there some way we could use all the money that we’re pouring into SC state to subsidize poor minority students who want further studies or training, whether it be a traditional 4 year degree or vocational training. I think we could get a whole lot more bang for the buck that way.

  12. Bryan Caskey

    So… where are we going with this?
    The taxpayers will keep subsidizing SC State with periodic transfers of money, in various forms.

    Where can we realistically expect to be in five years if the state keeps funneling in the money? In about the same place we are now, but we’ll have spent more money.

    And at what point is it not worth it anymore?
    We’re already past that point.

    /in Jed Bartlett voice
    What’s next?

    1. Doug Ross

      Experienced politician Jim Clyburn will ensure that the money keeps flowing. We need more experienced politicians like Jim who understand how to work the system.

    2. Silence

      I like how they are proposing using an appropriation from the state to pay off a loan, from the state.

          1. Mark Stewart

            Actually, it’s a bit of progress I think. The “loan” was never going to be repaid to the state, so at least this way the appropriation is a public acknowledgement from the legislature that SC State isn’t ever going to repay the money.

  13. Brad Warthen Post author

    I just noticed that the headline on The State’s story about this was “S.C. State makes case for funding.”

    Except, you know, they didn’t. They failed on that point…

  14. Karen Pearson

    Oh, I forgot, the SC legislature is in charge of handing out this money–forget any sane solution. And if this sounds cynical, well, I’ve gotten a bit irritated with them lately.

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