NPR logo Did South Carolina Sabotage Its Public Historically Black College?

Did South Carolina Sabotage Its Public Historically Black College?

Supporters of South Carolina State University rallied at the state's capitol on Monday to protest a proposal that would close the historically black college for two years. Jeffrey Collins/AP hide caption

toggle caption Jeffrey Collins/AP

Supporters of South Carolina State University rallied at the state's capitol on Monday to protest a proposal that would close the historically black college for two years.

Jeffrey Collins/AP

Last week, South Carolina lawmakers proposed shutting down the state's only public historically black college for two years.

"We are looking at a bankrupt institution," state House Rep. Jim Merrill told reporters. "No one takes any pleasure in recommending this."

And indeed, the school is in rough shape. It owes millions, enrollment has plummeted over the past eight years, and only about 14 percent of its students graduate in four years.

But a group of students and alumni has filed a federal suit blaming state officials for the school's current woes. They say the state has been illegally discriminating against the black university, first by underfunding it, then by allowing well-heeled nearby colleges, like the University of South Carolina, to offer academic programs very similar to those at S.C. State. That left prospective students with little reason to pass up a tonier school with the same offerings, they say, and enrollment dried up.

In essence, they say, South Carolina State was set up to fail.

It's not the first time that supporters of historically black institutions have accused states of kneecapping these schools. In 2013, a federal judge in Maryland held that persistent underfunding of the state's public black colleges had violated the Civil Rights Act's Equal Protection Clause and that by allowing similar programs at better-funded schools, Maryland had created a "separate and unequal" system of public higher education.

South Carolina State's history has been dogged by "separate but equal" questions. It was founded in 1896, at a time when black folks weren't allowed to attend other universities in the state. It was also the scene of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, in which three black students were killed by police during a civil rights protest on campus. The school has also played a key part in the economy of surrounding Orangeburg, which is why Robert Ford, a former South Carolina state legislator and an alumnus, has vowed to fight keep it open.

"The school's not going to close," he told the Times and Democrat. "I don't care what the General Assembly has to say about it. That's just not going to happen."

But duplicative programs and falling enrollment aren't S.C. State's only problems. The school was established as a land grant university, on federal land given to the state with the condition that any amount given to the school by the federal government each year would have to be matched by the state. There are more than 100 of these universities; Florida A & M and Tuskegee University are a couple of the better-known traditionally black schools in the bunch.

But a 2013 report found that South Carolina hasn't been playing by the land grant rules. After a number of presidents at historically black colleges and universities complained their states weren't putting in their fair share, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities looked into it. Sure enough, their research found that between 2010 and 2012, historically black land grant universities in 17 states — including South Carolina — had been shortchanged by a total of $56 million in state funding, while several predominantly white land grant colleges had gotten more than they were owed.

In fact, the study found that of the 18 land grant HBCUs in the United States, over half did not get the required amount in matching state funds in that period.

South Carolina has problems, but HBCUs have bigger ones across the board. When the Obama administration made it harder to get federally backed student loans in 2011, enrollment at many black colleges and universities predictably plunged, prompting Education Secretary Arne Duncan to later apologize for the "real impact it has had."

And last week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus bristled after a meeting with President Obama on the fate of HBCUs. According to caucus members, the president said that struggling HBCUs with low graduation rates are failing black students, and he reportedly said that the lowest-performing institutions "should fall by the wayside."

But for South Carolina State, survival might be less about what happens in Washington than what happens in Columbia, the capital. This week, students held a rally asking alumni to help save their failing school. "We need to support these schools financially," said one lawmaker who attended, "so that they don't have to depend on the Legislature that doesn't want to fund them."

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