Mount Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails says he was tired of hearing parents tell him that the area lacked a local public option for their children to earn bachelor's degrees.

His response? Courting Francis Marion University in Florence to open a satellite campus in the College of Charleston's backyard.

The upscale community east of the Cooper River is the fourth-largest city in the state, and it has a great public high school, Swails said. But many of its graduates have to leave the area to earn a four-year degree from a public institution, despite having decent grades, he said. For many students, “it's hard to go a long way away to go to school.”

Many local students aren't accepted at the College of Charleston, a liberal arts school on the peninsula with a growing national reputation, Swails said. The college enrolls large numbers of high-achieving, out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition rates, and in most cases requires students to have high SAT scores, he said.

Francis Marion, on the other hand, has demonstrated success educating South Carolina residents in the Pee Dee region, many of whom don't have super SAT scores or are among the first generation in their families to attend college, Swails said.

If Francis Marion officials accept his invitation, the satellite campus could open as early as the fall of 2014, he said. It likely would start by offering a limited number of degrees, including several business degree options and a bachelor of science in nursing program for registered nurses with two-year degrees.

'Missing the boat'

Francis Marion President Fred Carter, a former member of the College of Charleston faculty, said he's studying the plan now. He likely will make a recommendation to the school's Board of Trustees at its Nov. 8 meeting, he said, but he doesn't know yet what his recommendation will be.

About 4,100 students are enrolled at the school. More than 95 percent of freshmen are South Carolina residents, and for years the school's enrollment of black students has exceeded 40 percent.

The average SAT score for incoming freshmen was 952 in 2012; the College of Charleston's average was 1,209.

Swails said he wants the Francis Marion satellite campus to focus on students with SAT scores between 800 and 1,200. “It think we're missing the boat on them,”

Richard Crummy, pastor at Greater Goodwill AME Church in Mount Pleasant, said Francis Marion has a good reputation among members of his congregation of 1,180. He attended the school for three semesters in the 1970s, he said, and he would welcome a campus in the town. “They have done well in the Pee Dee,” he said. “If they came here, they would have success here.”

Swails said the Mount Pleasant campus also could serve students who graduate with two-year degrees from Trident Technical College.

Now, he said, there is no formal “bridge program” between Trident Tech and the College of Charleston. Such programs allow technical college students to take a limited number of classes at a four-year university, and guarantee their acceptance if they meet certain requirements.

Hundreds of students enroll each year in a bridge program between Tri-County Technical College and nearby Clemson University. The program has been operating since 2006.

National reputation

Greg Padgett, chairman of the College of Charleston's Board of Trustees, said a similar program between Trident Technical College and the College of Charleston is in the works now.

The college is committed to serving students from the Lowcountry, he said, and it is “always pleased to work with city and town leaders if they feel an educational need is not being met.” Trident Technical College President Mary Thornley was not available for comment Monday through Thursday.

In the fall of 2012, the latest year for which data is available, 286, or 13 percent, of College of Charleston freshmen were from Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties. At Francis Marion's Florence campus, 86 freshmen, or 11 percent, were from those counties.

The College of Charleston is proud of the standards it has in place and its national reputation, Padgett said. “But we've worked hard to accept as many students from the state and Lowcountry as we can.”

The arms race

Julie Carullo, spokeswoman for the state's Commission on Higher Education, said Swails has sent a letter to the commission making it aware of the proposal, but the commission can't weigh in until there's a solid plan for the campus, and until Francis Marion's board has approved that plan.

The commission must approve new facilities, leases and new academic programs, Carullo said. But she's not yet sure what kind of commission approval the new campus would need.

Mount Pleasant Town Administrator Eric DeMoura said a group of Town Council members are working on the plan now, and are exploring a few possible locations for the campus.

“When kids come out of Wando High School, we're proud to say they are well-prepared,” DeMoura said, yet those students lack options to continue their educations. “You have to wonder if our community is being fully served,” he said.

“I fully understand the frustration that the parents and residents experience,” said state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, and Mount Pleasant is trying to respond to that. But he and some other state legislators likely will have some concerns about the proposal.

Affordable and accessible options for earning four-year degrees are limited in the Lowcountry, he said. “That's why Clemson, (the University of South) Carolina and others are trying to establish a toe-hold here.”

But, he said, “the helter-skelter way we're going about things is not a plan I would choose.”

The state needs a comprehensive, statewide plan for higher education, instead of leaving those decisions to the individual colleges, he said. “For the schools it's an arms race.”

Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

Schools by the numbers

General information
Total undergraduates10,5003,800
Graduation rate (six year)68.8%42.5%
Freshman Class
Number of students2,138814
From tricounty-area286 students/13%86 students/11%
Average SAT score1,209952
Black students131/6%406/50%
Data is for the fall of 2012
Source: S.C. Commission on Higher Education, CofC, FMU