South Carolina panel votes to close struggling state college

Lawmakers say school needs 'a clean slate' to organize its finances

A South Carolina House budget panel voted on Tuesday to close the financially struggling South Carolina State University (SC State) for two years following school officials' unwillingness to cut athletics, faculty, and curriculum, reports The State.

Under the plan—a long shot to pass the Legislature—the school would close in July and its faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees would all be fired. It could reopen in the fall of 2017 with new leadership, although some of its 1,000 employees could reapply for their positions. 

In the meantime, its approximately 3,000 students would be eligible for state scholarships to attend other historically black universities or state system colleges as long as they maintain an at least 2.5 GPA.

Enrollment at the historically black college has fallen by about a third since 2007 and only 14% of its students graduate within four years. It also owes $10 million to maintenance and food vendors.

The proposal does not outline how the state would fund the costs of temporarily closing SC State, or how it would pay off the estimated $100 million debt it would assume from the school.

Background

Last year, the state formed a panel of former and current college presidents to act as advisors to the school. They recommended a $12 million bailout, which legislators approved. State budget leaders also awarded the school a $6 million loan.

The school this year asked House budget writers for $6 million with which to pay off the loan and requested $50 million over five years to improve its academics, but failed to detail how it would do so, according to the budget panel chief Rep. Jim Merrill (R).

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In a meeting between administrators and the panel last month, school leaders said they could not trim athletics, faculty, or curriculum, says Merrill.

"We are looking at a bankrupt institution," says Merrill, adding that the closure will provide "a clean slate."

Budget panel members assert college President Thomas Elzey has not done enough to improve his school's financial standing.

"SC State's leadership has been unable to provide straight answers on the condition of the school's finances for months, something [Gov. Nikki Haley (R)] finds totally unacceptable," says Chaney Adams, a governor spokesperson.

The problems predate Elzey, who started at SC State in 2013 as the entire board of trustees was replaced.

Accreditation issues

Currently, the school's accreditation is on probation because of its governance, accounting, and financial problems.

Should it close, it would lose accreditation, which would then take at least two years to get back after it reopens, says Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Students at unaccredited schools are ineligible for financial aid, meaning many would be unable to return. 

Proposal unlikely to pass

The proposal is unlikely to pass the state House and Senate, as SC State has significant political support, including from Hugh Leatherman (R), Senate President Pro Tempore, who heads his chamber's budget-writing committee.

While Leatherman declined to judge the proposal before reading it, he did question whether some SC State students might be denied from new schools because they do not qualify academically.

But regardless of whether the proposal fails, it has already hurt SC State, says Elzey.

"It's damaging our ability to attract students and damaging our ability to raise money," he told The State, adding, "It's creating a problem for the university in the message that it sends" (Shain, "The Buzz," The State, 2/10).

The takeaway: A South Carolina House budget panel wants to close one struggling college to give it a "clean slate," but it's president and other lawmakers say students may suffer.


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