Special Reports

A new era for USCB: Lowest-in-state graduation rate among new chancellor's main challenges

Pictured here is the 2011 graduation at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. At 9.8 percent, the school has the lowest graduation rate for four-year students attending South Carolina public universities.
Pictured here is the 2011 graduation at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. At 9.8 percent, the school has the lowest graduation rate for four-year students attending South Carolina public universities. Special to the Packet and Gazette

Only one in 10 full-time students who start at the University of South Carolina Beaufort graduate from its campus in four years, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education's College Completion database.

That puts USCB in the state's academic basement. Its 10 percent graduation rate in 2013 ranks as the worst rate among the state's 12 public four-year colleges -- including South Carolina State University, which recently came under scrutiny for financial problems and poor student performance.

But measuring USCB against the state's other colleges is not a fair "apples-to-apples" comparison, according to outgoing chancellor Jane Upshaw.

Upshaw, who has been at the helm for the past 12 years and will officially retire Aug. 15, says there is much more to it than that.

"The graduation rate is not where we want it to be, but it's because we're so young," she said, referring to the fact that USCB started offering baccalaureate degrees 11 years ago. Prior to that, the school only offered associate degrees.

"How do you compare us to an institution who has been offering baccalaureate degrees for decades and has more degree programs?" she said.

While many factors go into tabulating a graduation rate -- some that can slightly skew the numbers to reflect a poorer rate than what is true, experts acknowledge -- schools cannot use that as a free pass to explain away inferior rates, they add.

USCB's current graduation rate is important because it figures to be one of the main challenges awaiting USCB's new chancellor, Al Panu, who takes over Aug. 17 and will be tasked with guiding the university into its next chapter as a baccalaureate institution.

Panu has said he'll need some time in his new post before he will be able to offer solutions.

He and other school officials must take the low graduation rate seriously, say higher education observers.

"It's just unacceptable to say that one in 10 students will graduate in four years and one in four students will graduate in six years," said Michelle Cooper, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy. The institute is a national nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that promotes access to and success in higher education for all students.

"Often when we see numbers like this, we think the student has done something wrong to prevent themselves from graduating within those four years," said Cooper, a South Carolina native who attended the College of Charleston and has a nephew at USCB. "But when I see a 10 percent graduation rate, that tells me there is something systemic that is causing students not to graduate."



AT OTHER USC CAMPUSES

USCB began offering four-year baccalaureate degrees in 2004, and has since grown to offer 17 degree programs that serve roughly 1,800 full-time students.

Those students pay about $10,000 in annual tuition if they are from South Carolina, and $20,000 if they are from out-of-state.

But few of those students make it across the finish line, according to The Chronicle, a Washington, D.C.-based newspaper covering higher education.

The three other baccalaureate-granting campuses in the USC system -- the main campus in Columbia, USC Aiken and USC Upstate, located in Spartanburg -- each report a graduation rate more than double that of USCB:

  • At USC Upstate, accredited as a baccalaureate institution in 1976, one in every four students graduate in four years.
  • At USC Aiken, accredited in 1977, one in every five students graduate in that time.
  • The USC system's flagship campus in Columbia, accredited in 1917, boasts a 54 percent graduation rate.
  • Those rates are closer to the national average of one in every three students graduating in four years, according to The Chronicle.

    After USCB, the second-lowest graduation rate belongs to the embattled SC State, which graduates 14 percent of its students in four years.

    The Southern Association for Schools and Colleges accrediting group -- the same group that accredited USCB in 2004 -- placed SC State University on probation in June 2014 largely for its financial woes and debt load.

    There is no talk of USCB losing its accreditation.

    A representative from The Association's Commission on Colleges, which is the accrediting body for 11 states, said graduation rates and other specific and quantitative measures are not part of its accrediting standards. Instead, it considers qualitative points such as an institution's mission and "integrity," a measure of whether the institution complies with the group's directives and is honest in its reporting and disclosure to the commission.

    The commission would not comment on USCB's data other than to say it met the accrediting standards and that USCB has not received any sanctions.

    A FLAWED MEASURE?

    Some critics have claimed the graduation rate metric is flawed, especially when assessing regional campuses such as USCB, where many students are transfers or are older students going back to school.

    For example, The Chronicle's rate only measures full-time students who are in college for the first time. Students who are part-time or have been enrolled in college before are not counted, according to a representative with the Chronicle. Also, students who transfer out are counted against their initial school as a non-completer and those who transfer in are not counted toward the school to which they transfer.

    USCB budget director Mary Cordray said she was not surprised by the school's graduation rate, saying it has been a "feeder institution" for many years.

    "I believe that the graduation rate is the result of the fact that many students start at USCB with every intention of transferring to Columbia," she said. "Competing with big football and other aspects of student life Columbia has to offer is difficult, but USCB is working hard to change that perception."

    Many of USCB's students will transfer after one or two years, once they have completed their general course work, to USC's main campus or to another school to complete their degrees, said Upshaw, though she did not provide an exact number.

    Upshaw describes this as USCB's "access mission."

    "Other institutions don't spend money recruiting students who aren't going to stay with them for four or six years," she said. "But it is very important we open that door because we give students those opportunities many might not otherwise have."



    'A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD'

    In the past decade, higher education has undergone a shift. The one-time focus of increasing access to college has shifted to a focus on students completing their college degrees.

    Schools have largely been successful in getting more lower-income and first-generation students into schools -- a demographic that makes up about half of the student body at USCB, according to Upshaw.

    Getting students to complete degrees is proving to be more difficult.

    All schools, including USCB, are now being challenged to determine why first-time, full-time students aren't graduating in four years or at all or are choosing to transfer, said Cooper with the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

    "The schools have to have a commitment to making sure that every student who comes on that campus has their academic needs met," Cooper said. "We need the students at USCB to be well-educated and able to contribute to our economy, and I think USCB is poised to do that and can do better."

    Former student body president Raechel Blakeney, who graduated from USCB in May, said she believes USCB is doing its part.

    While she acknowledged there is room for improvement when it comes to the school's retention and graduation rates, she does not believe her degree holds any less weight because of USCB's current low numbers.

    "This rate doesn't surprise me because of our number of non-traditional students," said Blakeney, who is now working at Disney World in Florida. "I am one of these cases, as it took me five years to complete my degree requirements because of very difficult situations in my life that I wouldn't have made it through without the support of my (USCB) Sand Shark family."

    USCB offers free tutoring services for its students as well as a writing center and academic advising.

    The university would like to do more, such as employ more counselors and support programs. But financial constraints prevent that, Upshaw said.

    Such constraints also affect the students USCB accepts, she added.

    With the majority of its funding coming from tuition and fees -- only about 8 percent of its funding comes from the state -- USCB accepts all students that meets its entrance requirements. That means the university often takes students who are more likely to drop out of school because they don't have the support, drive or finances to finish.



    WHAT CAN BE DONE

    USCB officials have already put the pressure on themselves to improve the graduation rate, according to Upshaw. Although USCB does not have a specific graduation rate goal, school leaders would like to see it grow about 2 percent every year.

    Specifically, USCB officials have:

    • Discussed raising entrance requirements to improve the caliber of students the school receives. But that is something that takes time and must be done incrementally, she added.
  • Made plans to continue upping the number of degree programs, Upshaw said. By adding more programs, more students will complete their degrees at USCB instead of transferring to schools that offer specific majors they are interested in.
  • The school already is making strides toward that, she said, which can be seen in the freshman-to-sophomore retention rates.

    Two years ago, only about half of USCB's students continued at the school after completing their freshman year.

    But last year, 59 percent did, according to Upshaw.

    USCB leaders take it as a sign of a strong foundation they provided.

    But the question remains whether USCB is expanding beyond its means or whether it should focus on its role as a feeder institution and on a small number of majors that makes sense for the region.

    Upshaw says absolutely not.

    "We are not going back to being an associate degree or transfer institution," she said. "We've been baccalaureate for 11 years, so it's too late to stop now. But is that long enough for everyone to embrace us as that? Absolutely not, so we are working on that."

    Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah and at facebook.com/IPBGSarah.

    In our special report:

    Lowest-in-state graduation rate among new chancellor's main challenges | READ

    USCB Campus on Hilton Head a PR nightmare | READ

    USCB hopes to raise caliber of students | READ

    USCB's goal is to grab more state dollars, drive down costs | READ

    For USCB, changing the brand takes time, effort | READ

    In this Q&A, incoming chancellor Al Panu discusses his vision for USCB | READ

    Charts compare USCB to SC's other 4-year universities | READ

    Al Panu, new chancellor for the University of South Carolina Beaufort, must not let another decade pass without marked improvement. | READ

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