Bolton: SC State University not alone in struggle to graduate minorities in four years

S.C. STATE University deserves every bit of criticism it gets for its abysmal four-year graduation rate: 14 percent just won’t cut it.

Other state colleges do considerably better at graduating their students over a four-year period. USC-Columbia’s four-year graduation rate is 54 percent, while Clemson’s is 59 percent. The Citadel comes in at 62 percent, the College of Charleston at 52 percent, and Winthrop at 35 percent.

But a closer examination of the data suggests that a straight-up comparison isn’t the best way to analyze the information. S.C. State is a historically black college that serves an almost exclusively minority population.

It stands to reason that a better way to break down the data — although still not completely apples-to-apples — is by race and ethnicity. Even in doing so, S.C. State remains near the bottom in four-year graduation rate. But as I reviewed the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, I found that the Orangeburg college isn’t alone in its struggle to educate minority students.

Six public four-year colleges have four-year graduation rates for minorities that are below 25 percent: USC-Beaufort does the worst job at 6.5 percent, followed by Francis Marion and S.C. State at 13.6 percent, Coastal Carolina at 19.8 percent, USC-Aiken at 20.3 percent and USC-Upstate at 20.4 percent. Lander has a four-year minority graduation rate of 26.3 percent.

USC-Columbia and Clemson have what is considered a respectable 44.8 percent four-year graduation rate among minorities. Mind you, USC-Columbia and Clemson have many more Asians, Hispanics and other minorities than S.C. State, which has very few. Still the minority student population in South Carolina is overwhelmingly black.

Among historically black private colleges in our state, Benedict College graduates 14 percent, Allen University 12 percent and Claflin College 28 percent.

The average four-year graduation rate for minorities at public colleges in South Carolina is 25 percent; it is 24 percent for all colleges.

Data from The Chronicle of Higher Education show the black graduation rate nationwide, not including other minorities, at 17 percent at public colleges. The black graduation rate at S.C. State is 13.6 percent; the same rate at Clemson and USC is 42.4 percent and 40.3 percent respectively. The Citadel has the highest black graduation rate, at 58.5 percent.

While S.C. State’s graduation rate is indeed unacceptable and must be improved, it clearly has company. I’d dare say that even Clemson and USC-Columbia need to do better; after all, if they were being graded on the same scale by which they grade their students, they would be failing.

But what’s the problem here? Are these colleges simply doing a terrible job of educating students?

For some, that is at least part of the problem. There is a need for more effective remediation, more intense advisement and guidance and more effective instruction.

There are other things at work here as well.

Some students aren’t prepared for college and simply flunk out, while others get frustrated at the difficulty and drop out because they’re overwhelmed. Still others drop out because it’s too expensive.

Over the past few years, S.C. State has seen its enrollment continuously decline. Many colleges, particularly black colleges, saw the same phenomenon as families and students hit by the Great Recession dropped out because they couldn’t afford it.

The difference in the caliber of students plays a role here as well. S.C. State is going to have more students who aren’t as academically prepared as they need to be, which means they could struggle.

This accounts for at least some of the reason that USC-Columbia and Clemson, both of which have much higher standards, have a better four-year graduation rate. While they both have mechanisms that allow borderline students to enter, the fact is that on average it’s challenging to get acceptance to the schools, which often get the pick of the litter, including among black students. The Chronicle of Higher Education lists S.C. State’s 2013 median SAT at 851 while USC Columbia’s was 1,200 and Clemson’s was 1,259.

That’s not to say that top-notch students don’t attend S.C. State and other public colleges; they do, but far fewer than the number who choose USC-Columbia and Clemson.

When you consider the quality of students USC-Columbia and Clemson get, it’s not even a good comparison to pit S.C. State’s graduation rates with the minority graduation rates for USC and Clemson.

Still, all the state’s colleges need to work on increasing minority graduation rates. So, what to do?

One thing is to make college more affordable. That’s a job for the colleges and the state; public institutions have relied more heavily on tuition as state funding has dipped. While the state should bolster its funding, it’s only going to be by so much, which means colleges must come up with other funding streams, which Clemson and USC-Columbia are more adept at and equipped to do than their smaller counterparts.

South Carolina’s colleges also must improve remedial education, provide more intense counseling and appoint someone the task of coaching struggling students, in an effort to get them to finish school. They also must address the needs of working students — many have to work full-time or close to it; some have serious scheduling issues. And if they are forced to choose, work is going to win out more often than not.

While it needs to shore up funding, the most important thing the state must do is prepare students so they are ready for college after exiting high school. The fact is that far too many students show up at college with academic deficits, meaning our state has failed them long before S.C. State or any other college could. It’s well-documented that where you live in South Carolina dictates the quality of education you’re likely to receive. Here’s yet another reason for lawmakers to be deliberate in improving K-12 education as ordered by the state Supreme Court.

Until we start producing better-prepared students, expect four-year graduation rates among minorities — mostly black students — to continue to be unacceptably low at S.C. State and beyond.

Reach Mr. Bolton

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