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New S.C. State students hope to help rebuild struggling college

VIDEO: New beginnings at S. C. State

Freshmen moved onto campus at S. C. State University, preparing for a new year at the Historically Black College. Last year the university ran into financial troubles and there was talk of shutting it down.
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Freshmen moved onto campus at S. C. State University, preparing for a new year at the Historically Black College. Last year the university ran into financial troubles and there was talk of shutting it down.

Franklin Evans promised an overcapacity crowd of incoming S.C. State freshmen and their families Wednesday that the historically black institution offers a path for future success.

“We are providing you with access and opportunity here at S.C. State, and we expect you to take advantage of it,” the school’s interim president said, addressing the incoming students in the college’s MLK Auditorium. “You can be anything you want to be. S.C. State is going to do that for you.”

S.C. State last week welcomed its first class of new students since major overhauls of its leadership and budget. The moves came after the school’s deficit surpassed $20 million, leading to calls to close temporarily the state’s only historically black public college.

Instead, S.C. State has begun to rebuild.

S.C. State’s freshmen class of 746 is the school’s biggest in four years, a victory for administrators who wooed students to the Orangeburg campus despite the university’s turmoil.

Students and their families said last week they feel like they are part of a renaissance.

“She keeps something historical going,” said Yolandra Dotson of Due West, who attended S.C. State in the late 1990s and now is sending her daughter to the school. “I think they will be remembered.”

Eddie Brown, a freshman from Lake City, said he chose S.C. State because of “new opportunities and an all-around new feel. I think it’s a great thing that I can be part of rebuilding the school and help out.”

More cuts expected

Despite the 700-plus new freshmen, S.C. State’s enrollment is much lower than over the past 25 years.

4,500 Average number of students at S.C. State during the past quarter century, according to state data

In the week before classes start, that student body was nearing 2,700.

While this fall’s student body is a fraction of the past, enrollment surpassed the administration’s budgeted goal of 2,650 students.

With 681 fewer students than last fall, S.C. State administrators declared a financial emergency and cut the school’s budget by $19 million, or 22 percent.

S.C. State cut 35 faculty and staff jobs, trimmed academic and athletic scholarships awards by $5.5 million, and planned 12 days of furlough for employees. The school also closed nine buildings on campus, including three dorms, a museum and athletics offices.

Trustees will continue to analyze the school’s budget, said board vice chairman James Clark, a retired AT&T executive who was one of seven trustees appointed by state lawmakers in May to turn around the school.

“There will always be cuts,” he said. “Any efficiently run operation will always make cuts. So let’s not kid ourselves. Because if you don’t make cuts, then you’re assuming everything you have right now is at maximum efficiency. And I say it is not.”

The school also could expand some needed operations and programs, Clark added.

While he did not offer any details on budget cuts or new spending, Clark said the extra attention to how the school handles its money will pay off in changing the mindset on campus.

“This year, the quality of the experience that many students will have will exceed what they have had in the past,” he said. “Some people were writing the school off. They were already sweeping up ashes so to speak. But this is a phoenix rising out of that – a new, totally more powerful experience for students.”

The spike in the number of freshmen along with growing support from alumni and the S.C. State House is a good sign, said Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

“People are rallying around the institution and are aware of the seriousness of the situation,” she said. “It’s too early to determine the outcome. Given the role of the institution in the state, I am hoping that they do well.”

‘S.C. State always prevails’

Many freshmen arriving on campus Wednesday saw themselves as pioneers.

“It’s almost like it’s starting over and trying to get a good start,” Chris Crosby, a Georgetown freshman majoring in electrical engineering, said before heading into orientation.

Veronica Cooper of Kingstree said she thinks her grandson will get a good education at S.C. State despite the budget cuts.

“The bottom line (is) that his education — be at S.C. State, Coastal Carolina, Francis Marion — is based on him,” she said.

Jacquelyn Oliver, a freshman from Valrico, Fla., chose S.C. State because the school has a family feel and is a family tradition. Her father, uncle and sister are graduates.

Still, some people at Oliver’s church asked her why she was considering going to a school having such troubles.

“We got this email, and it cleared stuff up,” Oliver said of the messages that S.C. State administrators sent prospective students. “It was like, ‘Nothing is happening, and we’re still going to go on as planned.’ ”

Oliver’s father, Leonard, attended S.C. State in the early 1970s, when conflicts on campus were political – not financial. “It comes and it goes, but S.C. State always prevails,” he said.

Still, Jacquelyn Oliver’s sister, Jasmine, said she was concerned about threats the school could be closed.

Jasmine Oliver, a 2011 S.C. State graduate who now is getting her doctorate in applied physics at the University of South Florida, said she wrote letters to congressmen asking they support S.C. State.

It has really stirred up the alumni, at least the young alumni, to really show our support financially for the institution and to show our pride.

Jasmine Oliver, a 2011 S.C. State graduate

Gladys Addison of Columbia said she eased any concerns that her grandson, Markquis, a Richland Northeast High School graduate, had about the school’s future.

“I had enough confidence that the alumni and people in charge would not close the school down,” said Addison, a 1959 S.C. State graduate who met her husband at the school. “I knew, eventually, they would get the right people in place.”

‘Weather the storm’

The new leadership in S.C. State’s administrative offices faced hurdles to get new students on campus.

Rumors the Legislature had closed S.C. State and the school had lost its accreditation hampered student recruitment and retention efforts, said Evans, the university’s president.

Both rumors were unfounded.

In February, a S.C. House budget panel voted to shut down S.C. State temporarily to fix its finances, but the proposal died. The university was sanctioned by its accreditors last year because of its financial problems. But S.C. State kept its accreditation after a review this year.

To reassure students, the school held forums with students and their parents. Professors also spoke to students during advising periods.

“They told them: ‘Everything is going to be OK,’ and ‘We’re going to weather the storm,’ ” said Evans, who was elevated from interim provost after the board fired the previous president in March.

Administrators also got help from students committed to the school.

Derrick Woods, a Chester senior majoring in middle-level education, visited his high school and handed out registration forms. He touted the attention that students can receive at a smaller school.

“It is going to be a rebirth,” he said. “Every great society is going to have its time where it reaches a recession. Right now, we’re trying to improve academically. We’re trying to improve economically. … We can do that.”

The crisis united the student body.

Woods said none of his friends chose to leave.

Still, some students thought they would have no choice but to go somewhere else.

We have bonded more because, over the last few months, we thought the school was going to close down.

Derrick Woods, a senior at S.C. State

Communication from administrators and faculty will increase this year so students can become better ambassadors for the school, Evans said. A student think tank was created to give administrators feedback on university life, finances, student services and marketing, he said.

Jabrell Jenkins, a senior math education major from Georgetown who has a sister and cousin in the freshman class, said most returning students knew cuts were coming.

“It may be hard, but it’s understandable,” said Jenkins, holding the saxophone he played in the school’s marching band. “It starts off hard but, as the years go, it gets better and better and, easier for the students as they come back.”

Jenkins said he took rumors about S.C. State closing personally.

“It’s like talking about a loved one. You don’t want them to talk bad about a loved one regardless what situation they’re going through,” he said. “S.C. State, we’re family here.”

Finding the ‘happy spot’

Much work remains for S.C. State to recover after years when administrators failed to cut the school’s budget to offset its falling enrollment.

The school still had $12.3 million in unpaid bills owed to vendors — chiefly, food service and maintenance contractors — as of June 30, the state Department of Administration said.

Still, S.C. State has received some help.

The college was given an extension until 2020 to repay a $6 million state loan.

$6 million Amount S.C. State could receive over the next two years from a cash infusion approved by state lawmakers

Better spending controls are in place, Evans said. Administrators now require requisition orders before purchases are made.

“If the money has not been allocated in the budget, that’s an item we can’t do,” he said. “We’re spending much wiser.”

The growing freshmen class is just a first step, said Gasman.

“Getting back to 4,500 (students) is going to be hard,” she said. “If they can keep up the momentum and also retain the new class, they will be well on their way.”

Clark, the vice chairman of the school’s board, said growing enrollment to previous levels is not the top priority at the moment.

“The enrollment in the past was at some high number,” Clark said. “That may or may not be the right number for this school. What you want is an enrollment (where) you reach out to the best and brightest, and you receive the right size of enrollment for the scale of this university that we can maintain with quality programs. We will find that happy spot. We don’t know what that happy spot is.”

Clark and six other trustees with business and academic backgrounds were appointed by state lawmakers after the General Assembly fired the previous board in May. The interim board, scheduled to remain through mid-2018, has just started its work to correct S.C. State’s finances, Clark said.

“We’ve only had two, three months heads-down at this,” he said. “Think about what happens when we have had two, three years at this.”

Evans said school leaders will continue hammering the message that S.C. State provides graduates with marketable skills who can become great leaders.

“We are definitely moving in a forward direction,” he said while greeting a student outside a dorm. ”What I’ve said is that, ‘This is the new S.C. State.’ ”

S.C. State’s enrollment drops

2015: 2,700 (1)

2014: 3,331

2013: 3,463

2012: 3,807

2011: 4,326

2010: 4,362

2009: 4,538

2008: 4,888

2007: 4,933

2006: 4,384

(1) Approximate number

SOURCES: S.C. Commission on Higher Education and S.C. State University

But freshman class is largest in years

2015: 746

2014: 641

2013: 566

2012: 664

2011: 829

2010: 826

2009: 723

2008: 966

2007: 1,318

2006: 881

SOURCES: S.C. Commission on Higher Education and S.C. State University

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