Denmark Tech Struggles to Hang On

Historically black technical college in South Carolina may close due to sharp enrollment drops, raising questions about whether it receives adequate support and concerns about the hole it might leave.

April 2, 2018
 

South Carolina may lose its only historically black two-year college.

Denmark Technical College could become one of the first casualties of the state's declining postsecondary enrollment woes. But that's only if the state's General Assembly decides to close the college or to take the state technical college system's recommendation to turn Denmark Tech into a satellite campus for a neighboring technical college.

"Over the course of the past nine months as the State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education has been able to delve more deeply into the operations of Denmark Technical College, we have found irreparable problems stemming from declining enrollment, a lack of financial stability and neglected facilities," Tim Hardee, president of the South Carolina Technical College System, said in a letter cowritten with Ralph Odom Jr., chairman of the technical system board.

Hardee and Odom noted that Denmark Tech's enrollment has collapsed from more than 1,670 students in 2014 to 523 students in 2017. They also said more than 400 students who reside in Denmark Tech's three-county service area chose to attend a different technical college. More than 300 chose Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College, which is located about 30 miles northeast of Denmark Tech. About 55 percent of Orangeburg-Calhoun's students identified as black in 2016, according to federal data.

In their letter, Hardee and Odom recommend turning Denmark Tech into a satellite campus of Orangeburg-Calhoun and cited ongoing issues with Denmark Tech's financial stability and internal controls.

"The past two fiscal year audits have indicated material weaknesses and significant deficiencies in internal control," the letter said. The college's fund balance dropped from $6.9 million to $2.1 million from 2015 to 2017.

This year Denmark Tech will receive about $3.1 million from the state's technical college budget. That amount excludes funding from the state's lottery scholarship programs.

"As a public institution, the majority of our revenue comes from enrollment," said Christopher Hall, Denmark Tech's interim president, adding that tuition makes up about 75 percent of the college's annual revenue. Hall was brought in to the college about 13 months ago to stabilize finances and boost enrollment.

One way he's attempted to do that is by introducing the Panther Promise, a last-dollar scholarship that covers any unmet tuition costs for students after they've used federal and state financial aid. Last year the program cost the college about $10,000. But it wasn't announced until April, so the college hasn't been able to see any major impacts yet, although Hall said there was a slight increase in enrollment. About 85 percent of Denmark Tech's students receive some sort of financial aid.

Adequate Local Support?

The college faces an additional funding source problem.

"In the past, Denmark Tech has not received the same level of funding from the counties it serves as the other technical colleges in the state," Hall said. "For example, we serve three counties. Last year, for direct funding, we received $500 [from Barnwell County]. One of the other counties we serve provides the building we host classes in and covers salary for one of our employees that works in that area."

Hall points to a neighboring county and technical college as a point of comparison: Williamsburg Technical College, which has a comparable enrollment of about 700 students but receives about $1 million in funding from Williamsburg County.

A United Negro College Fund report released last year found that Denmark Tech's economic impact on its local and regional economies in 2014 was $32 million, which included direct spending by the college's students, faculty, employees, academic programs and operations. Hall believes that figure to be higher today.

The college generated more than 370 jobs for the area, and for each job created on campus, another public- or private-sector job was created off campus, according to the report. For each $1 million initially spent by the college and its students, 11 jobs were created.

"Denmark Tech is in an economically depressed part of the state," said UNCF director of research and member engagement Brian Bridges, who has family members who attend the college. "There isn't a whole lot of industry in that area, and if they were to close that would eliminate $32 million in economic impact in an area that needs every dollar."

Beyond the college's economic impact, Denmark Tech is one of the country's few two-year technical HBCUs, Bridges said. A two-year HBCU hasn't closed in at least 20 years. (The college is not a UNCF member.)

"Denmark Tech is preparing students for a lot of high-demand technical fields that we need more training opportunities in," Bridges said. "I just don't think students are aware and folks in the state aren't aware of the opportunities Denmark Tech can provide."

Denmark Tech's three-year graduation rate, while relatively low, is only two percentage points lower than that of Orangeburg-Calhoun, at 11 percent, according to federal data. Both institutions had similar transfer rates in 2015 -- 8 percent for Denmark Tech and 9 percent for Orangeburg-Calhoun.

Hall can't pinpoint why there is such a funding disparity among the counties.

But state officials said other South Carolina colleges should pay attention to the enrollment crisis at Denmark Tech.

Last fall the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education examined the number of high school graduates who went into the state's public colleges. The commission found that in 2006, the number of high school graduates who attended a public college in the state was more than 81 percent. But by 2016, that figure had fallen to 67 percent, said Jeff Schilz, the commission's interim executive director.

"What you're seeing is a decrease in supply not just at the technical college system, but at the comprehensives as well," he said. "And that's what we need to figure out as a state."

Schilz said they haven't discovered what, exactly, is happening with high school graduates, and they aren't able to track returning adults in the same way.

"The only theories, and we can't say for certain, but we feel the cost is playing a role and folks are looking at online opportunities and a lot are going into the work force," he said, adding that South Carolina's unemployment rate is low at about 4 percent. "If we have fewer students going in and there are empty seats, so to speak, it's going to be tougher and tougher to balance budgets."

Schilz said everyone is aware of the tradition and impact Denmark Tech has on its region and the state. The Assembly will consider those factors, he said, but the college suffered a 17-percent enrollment decrease last year.

Bridges said he's hopeful that if Denmark Tech remains open but is forced by the Assembly to merge with another technical college, it will retain its institutional history and culture.

"We've been here 70 years and the college has that traditional body of knowledge to take young people from wherever we get them -- because we have an open-door policy academically -- and work with them so they have the knowledge to be more productive members of society," he said. "If we merged and were not a stand-alone institution, that HBCU history and designation is gone."

In the meantime, Hall said the college is focused on increasing enrollment and getting out the economic-impact message. He's created a special enrollment task force, in addition to the institution's regular student recruiters, to saturate the three-county area with marketing staff who are passionate about Denmark Tech.

He's also hopeful that the Panther Promise will decrease postgraduate student debt and encourage high school graduates to attend the college.

"The recommendation from the [technical] system carries a lot of weight because the Legislature will look at them as experts. However, there is enough sentiment from constituents from the county we serve to speak up for the college and talk about the value it could bring," Hall said. "I do believe there is a chance."

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