Enrollment at two-year colleges, including the Technical College of the Lowcountry, has climbed in recent years.
However, many students aren't making it to their sophomore year, according to a report from the American Institutes for Research, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The report, "The Hidden Cost of Community Colleges," used data from the U.S. Department of Education to determine that from the 2004-05 academic year through 2008-09, nearly one-fifth of students nationwide didn't return for a second year of community college.
That's costing taxpayers, the study said. In total, almost $4 billion in federal, state and local tax dollars were spent in appropriations and grants to support students who dropped out after one year, the study said.
Through state and local government appropriations, South Carolina taxpayers spent $8.2 million on two-year college students who enrolled in the 2008-09 school year and didn't return the following year, the report said.
About $4.4 million in federal financial aid was given to South Carolina students who didn't enroll in a second year, according to the report.
Slightly more than 51 percent of first-year, full-time students became sophomores at TCL in 2010, according to the state's Commission on Higher Education. The average for the state's 16 technical colleges was 52.5 percent.
That's similar to TCL's retention rate in 2004, which was 51.1 percent. But in that six-year period, enrollment has increased by more than 1,000 students.
TCL officials said raising its retention rate has been a goal for several years.
Nancy Weber, TCL's vice president of marketing and enrollment management, said the college is helping students stay in school through a partnership with the nonprofit Achieving the Dream Inc., which is dedicated to helping community college students close the achievement gap and improve performance. The school also has improved remedial courses.
With federal funding, TCL offers child-care assistance, transportation and tutoring to help students stay in school, Weber said.
Struggling students are referred to the student affairs office for personal attention, and TCL added a retention specialist Sept. 1 to work one-on-one with students.
The college also recently received two federal grants to help low- and middle-income black students. The first -- $250,000 a year for five years -- will establish a writing lab, expand the math lab and improve remedial math, reading and English courses, according to a news release. The second grant -- $600,000 a year for four years -- will fund a program that offers intensive academic interventions.
"We want our students to be successful. We're working on identifying what barriers are out there internally and externally," Weber said. "We hope that our retention rate will look totally different in a few years."
Weber added that the report only examined data of first-year, full-time students, which make up only 10 percent of TCL's enrollment. It also didn't take into account students who leave for a semester or a year but later re-enroll, she said.
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