Freshman geographical ratio calls attention to “locality” of the College

(Graphic by Gillian Spolarich)

(Graphic by Gillian Spolarich)

College of Charleston sings its praises as one of “the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the South,” according to Provost George Hynd. Its unique brand combines liberal arts classes, strong science programs and an offering of 13 foreign languages in a historic urban setting.

“You’ve got a great school and a great city…it’s going to be attractive,” Jeff Schilz, Governor’s appointee to the Board of Trustees, said.

This attractiveness has placed the College in the throes of a not-so-secret identity crisis. As a South Carolina state institution, it is necessary to maintain ties to the local community and its regional applicants. However, Charleston continues to attract a large number of out-of-state students year after year.

In collaboration with the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education (CHE), the Board of Trustees has made every effort to maintain a 65/35 ratio between in-state and out-of-state students.

“If you look at the history of the College, 65/35 has been the tradition,” Chairperson Gregory Padgett said.

According to Jimmie Foster, assistant vice president for Admissions and Enrollment Management, “We are a state institution, so the primary goal we have is to serve the citizens of South Carolina.”

This goal was called into question on Oct. 17 when the Board of Trustees met and the Academic Affairs Committee released the enrollment statistics of the fall 2013 incoming freshman class. The data illustrated approximately a 50/50 split among in-state and out-of-state freshmen.

“We were all a little surprised,” Schilz said.

Although this was the first time the ratio was presented to the Board of Trustees, data from the CHE suggests that this has been the norm for the past four years. In 2010, 1,000 enrolled freshmen were South Carolina residents and 1,010 were from out of state.

“The data is a little misleading,” Cherry Daniel, chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, said because of the large number of transfer students admitted through relationships with two-year programs throughout the state.

Regardless, out-of-state freshmen who expect to find themselves in the minority are realizing that this is not necessarily the case. Although the institution maintains close to a 65/35 ratio overall, many of the transfer students who make up for this gap, as juniors and seniors, will never interact with members of the incoming freshman classes.

“A lot of this data surprises people when you get down to it. When you peel back that onion, only 13 percent of freshman students are from the tri-county area and only 50 percent are from South Carolina,” Daniel said.

The admissions data has shed light on an already hot issue.  Mt. Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails said he hopes to establish a Francis Marion University satellite campus in the area to enable local students to earn bachelor’s degrees. Despite the close proximity of this prospective location to downtown Charleston and the College, Swails commented that Francis Marion has a tradition of serving local South Carolina residents who do not meet high academic standards, unlike the College, in a Post & Courier article earlier this fall.  It is for this reason that Francis Marion, based out of Florence, is believed to be a better fit for Mt. Pleasant than the College.

In addition to public concerns about the College’s loyalty to local communities, “We have people contacting board members, wanting to know why their children can’t get into a state school and why the incoming class is 50 percent out of state,” Daniel said.

The College admits 100 percent of qualified South Carolina residents. “We’re going to accept every South Carolina student that meets our academic criteria,” Padgett said.

Perhaps the perceived problem lies within the data. In fall 2013, 7,488 of the 12,045 applicants were from out of state and only 4,557 were South Carolina residents. The College is attracting more out-of-state students, but the sheer volume of applicants makes it twice as difficult, in comparison, for out-of-state students to gain admission. While 39.7 percent of in-state applicants enrolled at the College in the same year, 18.2 percent of out-of-state students enrolled. Naturally, the result of increased competition among out-of-state students is higher academic credentials, on average.

The bottom line is that not many in-state students are applying to the College and even fewer are accepting offers of admittance. The question raised is a simple one: “We are a public school; how do we continue to fulfill the needs of the Lowcountry and the state of South Carolina?” Schilz said.

In order to meet the ideals set forth in its mission statement, the College must maintain a balance between in-state and out-of-state students.
“I speak for the Board. We definitely want out-of-state students to come to CofC because we have a lot to offer. I’m glad we serve out-of-state students like we do; we just need to have a balance,” Daniel said.

While the Board of Trustees is concerned with the numbers, the information is not new, and Daniel does not expect any changes to take place.

The University of South Carolina and Clemson, the College’s primary competitor schools, have responded to state cuts in higher education funding by ramping up their out-of-state recruitment process because these students generally pay higher tuition. According to Foster, these institutions are placing full-time recruiters in various states throughout the country.

“Generally speaking,” Hynd said, “for all state institutions across the country, our state funding has fallen about 50 percent.” However, these cuts have not affected admissions at the College.

“If anything, I’d say we’ve actually stepped up our in-state recruitment,” Foster said.

The College implemented the Bridge Program to meet with local guidance counselors and share eligibility needs so that South Carolina residents do not overlook the College. Aside from two full-time recruiters in Columbia and Greenville, the Office of Admissions is also participating in application days, sponsored by the CHE, where all state schools are invited to promote their institutions.

“There is a huge outreach effort, not just in admissions but also in alumni relations,” Schilz said.

Out-of-state students are ready and willing to come to Charleston despite the cost, but certain challenges that plague all college applicants across the board. The price of college creates an increased need for scholarships, even though the percentage of aid given to residents is very high.

“About 98 percent of in-state students will come with some amount of scholarship,” Donald Griggs, director of Financial Aid, said.

Other challenges include increased competition among applicants and demographic shifts, such as a higher percentage of women than men graduating from college and an increase in the average age of college students.

Hynd argues that the College meets these challenges by expanding new programs and investing in strategic recruiting and marketing to reach specific populations.

The large number of out-of-state freshmen alone helps diversify the student body and add value to the College.

“I think it’s very important we have a good representative from out of state. There’s a robust dialogue and they bring diversity to the campus. I’m all for that,” Daniel said.

“One of the neat things about the College is that we attract people throughout the country and the world…it increases value,” Schilz added.

Perhaps potential students should not gauge the College based on the 65/35 in-state and out-of-state student ratio, but to also take into consideration the 50/50 division among incoming freshmen. Although this data may appear shocking on paper for some and calls into question the nature of the College as a state institution, it places the College in a completely different playing field. Should the number of out of state students exceed the number of in state students, the College will step in.

In reality, the ratio balance may not be a legitimate problem.  The school attracts students from across the country and across the globe, similar to notable private universities nationwide. A diverse student body is bringing new ideas and new perspectives to campus. Although the overall student ratio remains close to 65/35 (for now), it is safe to say: Welcome to the big leagues, College of Charleston.

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