Graduation Rates Low Among S.C. Higher-Ed Schools

October 17, 2012

Investigative Reports

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GraduationIf state funding of South Carolina’s colleges and universities were solely based on the schools’ graduation rates, many of the higher-education institutions likely would be in financial trouble.

Gov. Nikki Haley wants funding to be tied to several factors, one of which is a school’s graduation rate. At a higher-education conference last week in Columbia, Haley unveiled plans to push for an “accountability-based” funding system for public colleges and universities.

“If you’re not feeding the business sector, you’re not doing anything,” she said. “Every school is a business. That’s not a bad thing. Let’s start treating them like a business and not like kindergartners.”

The Citadel had the best four-year graduation rate among the state’s public colleges and universities, but it was only 60.2 percent, according to a study by the S.C. Commission on Higher Education (CHE) that tracked freshmen entering college in 2005. The University of South Carolina-Beaufort had the worst rate at 8.3 percent.

In between were the following public schools with their four-year graduation rates, based on the CHE study:

  • Clemson University – 54.1 percent;
  • College of Charleston – 52 percent;
  • USC-Columbia – 51.2 percent;
  • Winthrop University – 35.6 percent;
  • Coastal Carolina University – 25.1 percent;
  • USC-Aiken – 21.7 percent;
  • USC-Upstate – 21.3 percent;
  • Francis Marion University – 19.8 percent;
  • Lander University – 19.8 percent; and
  • S.C. State University – 14 percent.

The schools did better when six-year graduation rates were analyzed. Clemson came out on top with a rate of 80.4 percent, followed by the Citadel at 70.3 percent and USC-Columbia at 70.2 percent. USC-Beaufort remained at the bottom, though its six-year graduation rate was 20.7 percent, more than 12 percentage points higher than its four-year graduation rate.

The state’s technical schools as a group had lower graduation rates when compared to four-year schools. Given a three-year window for students to enter as freshmen in 2008 and graduate, Denmark Technical College’s graduation rate, for example, was 11.3 percent; while the graduation rates for Trident and Greenville Technical colleges were 9.4 percent and 8 percent, respectively, according to the CHE’s study. In studying those rates, the commission said it took into account the fact that many students enter technical schools to prepare themselves for a four-year institution.

Cathy Almquist, Trident’s director of institutional research and assessment, said at last week’s conference that technical schools often are unfairly held to the same standards for four-year institutions.

“We’re using public money,” she said. “We need to be accountable to students, to taxpayers and to local business and industry. That’s a good thing. But let’s make sure accountability measures are appropriate to the institution that we’re measuring.”

Haley said a merit-based system of funding, which under her plan would be based on job placement, access and affordability, in-state student population and graduation rates, would give schools a chance to prove themselves.

She has yet to flesh out details of her plan, though it is expected she will do so when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

State funding for public higher education is currently 11 percent of the budget, and South Carolina ranks 38th in the nation for state support of higher education, according to the Commission on Higher Education’s website.

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D.C., who also was part of the opening panel at last week’s conference, urged legislators and higher-education institution presidents to analyze gateway courses that could be lowering graduation rates, and to focus on primary and secondary education.

“We currently spend twice the per-student average on higher education of any industrialized country, with poorer results,” said Neal in an interview afterward with The Nerve. “The answer is not more money but thoughtful allocation of resources to institutions which successfully ensure real academic quality, accountability and affordability.”

“The governor’s desire to focus on quality, access, affordability and mission is a great place to start,” she continued. “It makes sense to direct money toward those institutions doing the best job of ensuring a quality education.”

During the panel discussion, Neal said the Missouri Department of Higher Education targeted 116 programs for discontinuation in 2011, allowing public schools there to put their resources into remaining programs. Afterward, she told The Nerve that the University of Hartford in Connecticut similarly “underwent a prioritization review of over 250 academic and administrative programs, identifying 109 programs for restructuring or divestment.”

Neal also drew attention to an aspect of higher education noticeably overlooked during last week’s discussion.

“Growth in administrative expenses has been gigantic,” she said. “There are more administrators than instructors.”

College and university presidents at the conference said they support an increase in funding for higher education and a decrease in regulation by the state.

“If you want us to run like FedEx, stop treating us like the post office,” said Francis Marion University President Fred Carter, drawing laughs from the audience.

“Every land purchase has to go through the (S.C.) Budget and Control Board,” Carter said. “Give us the authority to run our institutions. This is not the 1930s.”

Carter said he supports “moderate recurring funding” based on performance.

“Evaluate us and put a little money with it,” Mary Thornley, president of Trident Technical College, quipped.

More seriously, she said that to close the gap between employers’ needs and what students are able to bring to the table, it is necessary to increase funding for faculty certification, fully equipped labs and training.

Lawmakers attending the conference agreed that the state’s educational issues warranted thorough discussion and consideration. But there were no promises of more funding.

“We just don’t have enough money to solve all our problems,” said Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.