More Four-year Degrees Indispensable to S.C. Progress

January 22, 2010 at 10:37 am

South Carolina once again is challenged to transform itself to meet new realities. Contrary to an implication in The State’s Jan. 17 editorial, however, South Carolina needs far more students earning four-year degrees to meet that challenge – certainly not fewer.

The 10 years ahead have been dubbed the “Transformation Decade” by futurist David Houle – a time of “alterations, disruptions and reorganizations” happening with dizzying velocity. It is a time when our state must do more than keep up or even catch up. We must speed up our own rate of transformation to excel – starting with the education of our citizens and the number of four-year degrees earned here.

The last century was a time when a high school education could prepare many S.C. citizens for dependable factory jobs and a good life. Now, the world of work changes almost as quickly as the weather, and workers need to transform as quickly. For some, that means refreshing technical training fairly often. Yet for better-paying jobs, a deeper education is needed – the kind that emphasizes how to gather information widely, digest it and use it to make good decisions in ever-changing circumstances in a complex world. That means at least a four-year degree – and that’s why South Carolina’s network of public comprehensive universities is indispensable to our state’s future.

South Carolina trails both the U.S. average and several neighboring states in its percentage of citizens with a bachelor’s degree or better, which the National Center for Higher Education Management Studies indicates has the strongest correlation with raising a state’s per capita income.

Not surprisingly, our high unemployment rate reflects this educational difference. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that annual unemployment among S.C. residents with a bachelor’s degree or better is just 2.6 percent. Yet the rate is 15 percent for those with less than a high-school diploma, 7.8 percent among high school graduates and 5.2 percent for those with some college or an associate’s degree.

That’s why the S.C. Higher Education Study Committee last year recommended that the state adopt the goal of matching our state’s rate of a four-year degrees or better to the best record in the United States. In Washington state, public comprehensive universities produce 25.1 bachelor’s degrees per 100 undergraduate students. S.C. public comprehensive universities produce 19.1. In response, the presidents and chancellors of these institutions have committed ourselves to matching, then surpassing the nation’s best state graduation record with the full capacity of our network.

Who are South Carolina’s public comprehensive universities? A network of 10 public universities offering a wide array of four-year and graduate degrees to future citizen-professionals, while also providing research and public service benefiting our home regions and the state at large: The Citadel, Coastal Carolina University, the College of Charleston, Francis Marion University, Lander University, S.C. State University, the University of South Carolina Aiken, the University of South Carolina Beaufort, the University of South Carolina Upstate and Winthrop University.

Collectively, we:

  • Produce half of all bachelor’s degrees produced in S.C. public universities.
  • Produce more bachelor’s degrees than independent institutions.
  • Produce more bachelor’s degrees in key science, technology, engineering and math fields than either the research universities or the independent sector.
  • Graduate more African-Americans with bachelor’s degrees than the research universities.
  • Enroll larger percentages of low-income South Carolinians with significant financial need than the research universities or independent institutions .

No wonder the National Center for Higher Education Management Studies identifies South Carolina’s public comprehensive universities as the “indispensable core capacity for South Carolina to educate more students at the bachelor’s degree level” – the key way to increase South Carolina’s per capita income by attracting good-paying jobs to our state to take advantage of a ready, willing and able knowledge economy workforce.

South Carolina’s technical colleges and research universities have important roles to play in the Transformation Decade, just as they have in every era when our state has made progress. Still, as the national center found, boosting the number of four-year degree-holders here will attract the largest number of better-paying jobs to South Carolina in the new age and raise per capita income.

South Carolina can become one of the nation’s most educated states, but only if our state’s leaders support the indispensable institutions already doing the most to prepare S.C. students to become the kind of citizen-professionals who will attract 21st century work opportunities to our state.