Why African American undergrads are getting left behind despite USC's growing diversity

University of South Carolina students make their way past the Russell House on campus.
University of South Carolina students make their way past the Russell House on campus.

As the student body at the University of South Carolina's flagship campus gets more diverse overall, African-American students are being left behind.

The proportion of African-American students has dropped from one in five 20 years ago — the height of African-American enrollment — to one in 10 today.

"It disappoints me. I can't say it surprises me," said Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Richland Democrat who has been critical of the university's dwindling percentage of African-American undergraduates.

Experts offer two theories for why this is happening. One is that African-American students are less likely to afford paying $24,462 a year for in-state tuition and board at USC.

Another theory contends USC's meteoric increase in out-of-state students, who have been disproportionately white, have reduced the percentage of African-American students.

The trends "surprised" Student Body President Taylor Wright. Since he has been on campus, he said he has not noticed a decrease in minority students. However, Wright, who is African-American, said rising tuition is a serious concern for minority students, and that many have had to look elsewhere for money. Wright said he found extra money through scholarships from the state, USC and his church.

"A lot of people in the state don't know where to look" for scholarship money, Wright said. "Especially first-generation college students."

For the last 24 years, the increase in both higher tuition and out-of-state enrollment at USC have closely correlated with a shrinking percentage of African-American students, according to The State's analysis of Commission on Higher Education data. An increase of students identifying as Hispanic or multi-racial has been filling in the gap left by a declining percentage of white and African-American students since 2009, when definitions were changed to allow multiple races.

USC officials defend their diversity record by pointing out they educate more African-Americans than any other college or university in the state. However, the university does not dispute the percentages are changing.

Last year, USC had 2,643 African-American undergraduates, more than any other university in the state. Last year's numbers, however, were slightly below the 24-year average of 2,705, according to Commission on Higher Education data.

"Percentages matter," Jackson said. "That tells you you haven't really focused on (African American enrollment) as much as you had in the past."

Priced Out

As universities throughout the country raise tuition, campuses tend to become less diverse, according to a 2018 Princeton study.

It's a conclusion "a lot of people assume, but we wanted to look at the data," study co-author and Princeton researcher Drew Allen said. The study controlled for other factors such as unemployment and changing local demographics. But researchers were unable to say conclusively that tuition directly caused decreasing diversity, Allen said.

"Economic diversity is present in overall society and along racial lines, so when college becomes less affordable, it stands to reason... tuition is a hurdle, or at least a barrier," South Carolina NAACP Executive Director Dwight James said.

The Princeton study did not show where minority students went instead, Allen said. But a report from the Commission on Higher Education says African-American students are leaving "research" institutes like USC and Clemson in favor of smaller universities such as Coastal Carolina, USC Beaufort and USC Upstate.

It's a trend James said he has seen personally. Rather than going to 4-year schools, he said, many African-American students will attend two years of technical college and finish the remaining two years at a research institute.

If this assessment is correct, perhaps this explains why Coastal Carolina, USC Beaufort and USC Upstate have seen their percentages of undergraduate African-American students soar, even as tuition and out of state enrollment increased.

Out-of-state effect

Aside from raising tuition, recruiting out of state students — who pay $20,000 more for tuition than in-state students — is one of USC's primary means to raise revenue. It's been successful so far, with out-of-state students becoming USC's primary source of income, said Wes Hickman, a university spokesman. But in the process, USC fell prey to unintended consequences.

"Nonresident students, for the most part, are white students who can afford to pay," Hickman said.

Some of the data support this notion. For example, if tuition was the sole driver of the declining African-American undergraduate percentage, one would expect a decline at Clemson University similar to USC's. The Upstate school has raised tuition more — both as a percentage and a dollar amount — than USC since 1993.

But that's not happening. Clemson's percentages of African American undergraduates is slightly less than it was in 1993, but has been increasing since 2013.

The big difference between Clemson and USC, in this case, is out-of-state students. While Clemson's percent of undergraduates from other states has increased from 31 to 34 percent since 1993, USC's has increased from 17 to 43 percent in the same time.

Officials from both USC and Clemson have said declining funds from the state legislature drove up tuition and the need for out-of-state students.

"The state’s decision to divest from higher education funding over the last several years has put added pressure on tuition prices, but that is true of all students in low-income families, not just racial minorities," said Chuck Knepfle, Clemson's associate vice president for enrollment management, said in an emailed statement.

One of the ways Hickman and Jackson say USC could help enroll more African-American undergraduates is to boost funding for need-based scholarships.

Increasing need-based aid has drawn support from the state Senate in various forms. A bill to reform the lottery scholarship — it's likely dead this year but could see support next year — could include shifting money from the lottery scholarship program to need-based aid. The version of the budget the Senate passed Thursday would increase need-based funding by $11.3 million, which the house version of the budget keeps need-based funding at $64.7 million, the same amount it was last year.

"Unless we change the funding model, a lot of students are going to be priced out," Hickman said. "The current model is unsustainable. We cannot afford to fund at these paltry levels and keep raising tuition."