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.
“The terms and conditions of that … (are to) be worked out in the future,” Elzey said.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley criticized lawmakers in December for making that loan, saying they “gave it away because they know it can’t be paid back.”
‘Graduation rate ... pretty tough’
Money wasn’t the only focus of Wednesday’s hearing. S.C. State’s graduation rate was scrutinized as well.
The school’s graduation rate for freshmen who entered in 2007 and graduated within six years was 35.7 percent, down from 53.8 percent for freshmen who entered in 2000.
The only S.C. college with a lower graduation rate is the University of South Carolina’s Beaufort campus, according to 2014 data from the Commission on Higher Education. That school only started offering four-year degrees in 2004.
S.C. State’s four-year graduation rate for freshmen who entered in 2007 was 13.7 percent.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat that a 14 percent graduation rate within four years is pretty tough,” said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, chairman of the House education budget-writing panel.
Elzey told the panel S.C. State plans to improve its graduation rate over time. To achieve that, the school will have to focus on retaining students, and offering them financial assistance and incentives to complete their degrees at S.C. State, he said.
‘Scaling back athletic programs?’
S.C. State’s financial crisis, due in part to cuts in its state funding during the Great Recession, led accreditors to place the school on probation last year.
The school’s enrollment dropped to 3,331last fall from 3,807 in fall 2012. Enrollment for this spring’s semester is expected to be even lower – 2,957, Elzey told the panel.
However, an increase in the number of out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition than in-state students, has somewhat offset the impact of lower enrollment, he said.
Elzey said S.C. State’s administration and staff have been cut since 2010, scaling back staff by 145 positions to 442 in 2014. The size of the school’s faculty has shrunk by nearly 10 percent to 207 from 229.
Seven-day furloughs for university employees also are on the table if legislators will approve the measure, which could save almost $1 million, Elzey said.
Merrill noted the university’s current expenses include $7 million for athletics.
“Has there been any thought of doing what the College of Charleston did and scaling back athletic programs?” Merrill asked.
S.C. State has suspended its women’s golf program, but trustees rejected suspending basketball, Elzey said.
The university will continue to look at the cost of sports, Elzey said, adding cutting sports further is not something the school wants to do at this time.
“There’s a huge difference between what is desired and what has to be done,” Merrill replied.
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said she wanted more information on S.C. State’s plans to balance its financial books.
“All the talk and fluff is great, but I’m interested in specifics about what the university’s plans are to deal with the declining enrollment because that’s where the money is,” she said.
Legislators understand the important role and proud history of the college, founded in Orangeburg in 1896, but “we’re going to have to exercise some tough love,” Cobb-Hunter said.
‘Bulldog Nation is still strong’
House members grilled Elzey, named president in June 2013, for three hours Wednesday, running out of time to hear from students who attend the school.
Afterward, the school’s student body president said students are confident in S.C. State’s future and stand behind its president and trustees.
“From our perspective, it takes money to make money, and we just want any and all help that we can get,” Aaron Russell said. “We just want to show them that Bulldog Nation is still strong. We still believe the morale is high.”