Everyone’s children should have a reasonable shot at a good, four-year college education.
That’s a simple proposition, but one that we here in the Town of Mount Pleasant take to heart. That’s why our Town Council feels it is appropriate to extend a formal invitation to Francis Marion University to establish a satellite campus in our town.
Constituents have been telling us for years how tough it is to find and pay for a quality baccalaureate education around here. Issues of both affordability and accessibility block the way. We decided that we needed to take a look at a school that local legislators have told us was doing a good job on both accessibility and affordability. If the folks at FMU accept our offer — as befits a well-run institution, they are taking time to research and consider this decision — we think it will be a great fit and a real boon for kids across the tri-county area.
Not everyone agrees with our idea, including the editorial board of The Post and Courier, which took issue with it in a recent opinion piece. They just couldn’t understand our thinking and suggested we were moving too fast towards an end they thought unnecessary.
They are entitled to their opinion, but here on the ground, the facts have led us to a different conclusion. Thousands of tri-county kids who want and deserve a good, four-year college degree just aren’t being served.
The public and private colleges in the area just aren’t willing, or perhaps able, to do what’s required to meet the needs of one of the fastest-growing parts of South Carolina. Francis Marion can be part of the solution. Our neighbors from Florence have a long and laudable record of educating South Carolinians of all stripes and types. That would make them an excellent fit — if they agree to come.
That’s the nut of our idea, but we understand that it represents innovative, out-of-the-box thinking and consequently may be hard for some to digest. That’s just like the out-of-the-box thinking the town had when we purchased the old Bassett Furniture store and asked Trident Technical College to open a campus for our citizens. We believe that anyone armed with all the facts will not suffer dyspepsia for long, however. Let me provide some details, and some insights into our thought process:
• The need. This really does seem very clear to us. The most affordable educational option for many families in our area is to attend a school that’s close to home for all or part of their baccalaureate studies. But the Charleston area’s four-year institutions are either too narrowly focused, too expensive, or headed down a path that precludes serving a wide range of South Carolina students.
The College of Charleston would be the most likely candidate to meet this need, but it is, as best we can tell, moving on a different track, towards a new type of institution, through the recruitment of more out-of-state students. According to S.C. Commission on Higher Education statistics, nearly half of the College of Charleston’s undergraduate student body is from out-of-state, a figure that has been climbing steadily for several decades. That’s led to a college that looks less like South Carolina — just 6 percent of the undergraduate population is African-American — and has fewer slots for South Carolinians and tri-county area students in particular.
In fact, just 13 percent — 13 percent! — of C of C’s 2012-13 freshman class (the most recent for which data are available) is from this area. That’s unlikely to change, given C of C’s trajectory and its self-imposed 10,000-student enrollment cap.
Given this vacuum, proprietary, for-profit colleges have descended on the area with a vengeance in recent years. Some may view that as a sign of an educational glut and service duplication. We see it as yet another sign of unmet need. The proprietary schools exist to make a profit. They’re here because of a recognized need. That’s fine. It’s a free country. But their presence doesn’t change the picture. Those schools are expensive and they just don’t offer the educational quality or stability that our constituents are seeking.
Francis Marion University does.
• The fit. After considering a number of schools, Mount Pleasant chose to invite FMU because of its long history of serving South Carolinians. More than 95 percent of the student body at FMU is from South Carolina, and its core mission has always been to educate a broad array of students from this state.
In recent years, FMU has also shown itself to be an innovative and nimble institution, which will certainly be useful in a dynamic region like ours. For instance, FMU has recently added new, career-oriented programs in healthcare and engineering. Both were implemented at the behest of local business and industry leaders. We’re just taking our cue from those folks, following their example. FMU is a school that’s responsive and gets things done.
• The program. Details remain to be worked out, but I can tell you today that FMU’s satellite campus, if put in place, would be a limited, fiscally prudent campus offering a few, specifically targeted majors. The school’s obvious expertise in health care instruction — FMU’s nursing grads regularly post the state’s top mark on the licensure tests — suggests one likely area of study. Others will be developed.
All will be based on a careful assessment of local needs and abilities. The campus will be quite modest. Mount Pleasant has agreed to find a suitable building for the college, and to help maintain it. We’re not looking for a Taj Mahal. Just a good, safe building where we can invest in our children’s future — which, of course, is what this is all about. We’re taking a bold step in seeking what’s best for the families that make up our community.
We eagerly await Francis Marion University’s decision.
Billy Swails is mayor of the Town of Mount Pleasant. This column was also signed by council members Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, Linda Page, Ken Glasson, Elton Carrier, John Burn, Chris Nickels, Chris O’Neal and Craig Rhyne.