Despite the many diversity efforts the College of Charleston has launched in recent years, black student enrollment hasn't budged beyond 6 percent.
Average SAT scores at state colleges and universities:
C of C 1,149
The Citadel 1,080
Francis Marion 951
*For all first-time freshmen in the fall of 2013, including in-state, out-of-state and those admitted on a provisional basis
S.C. Commission on Higher Education
College, local and state leaders agree that the number is far too low for a public college in South Carolina, where blacks make up about 30 percent of the population. But turning around the problem is proving to be tough.
Recent diversity efforts at the College of Charleston:
Approved college's first diversity strategic plan.
Directed $125,000 in new scholarship funding to recruiting minority students.
Increased funding for pre-college programs supporting minority students.
Hired additional staff to recruit diverse students from South Carolina high schools.
Approved undergraduate major and hired new faculty in African-American Studies.
Expanded diversity training for faculty.
Created the Eddie Ganaway Diversity Education and Resource Center.
Scheduled an annual College of Charleston "Diversity Week" to celebrate domestic and global diversity at the college.
Sponsored an annual Student Diversity Conference.
Established an annual Diversity Signature Speaker Series, in which nationally renowned speakers address diversity issues.
Office of Institutional Diversity
John Bello-Ogunu, the college's chief diversity officer, said everyone at the college is committed to boosting diversity. The school's board affirmed a commitment to diversity when it approved the college's 10-year strategic plan in 2009, he said.
College of Charleston minority and black student enrollment:
Year Enrollment Minority Black
2013 10,488 18% 6%
2012 10,506 14% 6%
2011 10,461 16% 6%
2010 10,121 16% 6%
2009 10,147 18% 5%
"It's a concern for all of us," Bello-Ogunu said. But the college, like other predominantly white colleges and universities, faces a lot of challenges to bringing in more minority students, particularly black students.
Diversity at S.C. colleges, universities in 2013:
College Undergrads Minority Black
Francis Marion 3,714 54% 49%
Winthrop 5,048 41% 30%
USC 24,180 23% 10%
The Citadel 2,735 23% 9%
C of C 10,488 18% 6%
Clemson 16,931 17% 6%
S.C. Commission on Higher Education
The school has done many things in recent years, he said, including the board approving a separate strategic plan dedicated to boosting diversity in 2012 and $125,000 in scholarships for minority students. College leaders also beefed up recruitment and pre-college programs, he said.
But in South Carolina, many pubic colleges and universities compete to enroll a limited pool of qualified minority applicants, he said. That's especially true for black students, he said. "The competition is fierce among state institutions for qualified black applicants."
The college also has a limited amount of scholarship money to offer minority students compared with what some other state institutions can offer them, he said. And an attractive financial package often is what convinces the best and brightest minority students to enroll at a particular school.
Everyone at the college knows "it will take continued, aggressive efforts" to boost diversity, he said. "We'll work hard until we are successful."
Commitment at the top?
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said she thinks increasing enrollment of black and other minority students would take a strong commitment from college leaders. And she questioned whether that commitment exists today. "I don't think there's enough top-down commitment," she said. "If the top really wanted it to change, they would give the directive to bring up the numbers."
Scott said diversity-boosting efforts, such as having a campus diversity office, and bringing in nationally known speakers, such as Julian Bond, former national chairman of the board of the NAACP, who spoke at the school Friday, are good. But they are not enough.
"It's all about recruitment and creating a supportive environment once (minority students) get there," she said.
College President George Benson said the school's leadership is committed to increasing diversity. "Our goal is to be a diverse and welcoming community," he said in a prepared statement. "We are looking for real solutions to diversity challenges at the college, rather than quick fixes that won't last. Our approach to diversity is holistic and has involved changes to our recruitment, mentoring, programming, and financial support for diverse students. Simply recruiting underrepresented minority students without a commitment to creating and maintaining an environment that promotes retention is unacceptable," Benson stated.
Scott also said she thinks that hiring Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as the school's next president would be the death knell for college diversity efforts because of the message it would send to the state's minority students.
The college is currently in the process of hiring a new president to replace Benson, who will step down in June. McConnell, a graduate of the college, has applied for the job.
But McConnell is a prominent face associated with the flying of the Confederate battle flag on the Statehouse grounds, a move that prompted the NAACP to call for an economic boycott of South Carolina.
After a highly contentious debate in 2000, legislators eventually yielded the compromise of moving the battle flag from atop the Statehouse dome to the grounds, next to a Confederate memorial. Opponents argue that location is even more prominent.
Winthrop University, a public college in Rock Hill, has demonstrated that diversity goals can be achieved, said Gloria Jones, dean of the school's University College.
About 30 percent of the 5,000 students enrolled this year are black, and the six-year graduation rate is the same - about 54 percent - for both black and white students.
The school began an aggressive approach to increasing diversity in the late 1980s, when it landed a federal grant to offer a six-week summer program for minority students, she said. The program, which students completed before their freshman year, focused on reading, writing, note taking and math skills. The school also offered support services for those students after they enrolled.
When the grant ran out, the school continued to fund a shorter version of the program.
The school now offers that program to minority students who have sufficient high-school grades or SAT scores but not both. And students in the program continue to get support services. They also are required to attend a study hall three times per week.
Jones made clear, however, that not all black and other minority students are part of the program. Many of them are accepted through the traditional process.
Over the years, Winthrop has become an option on the list of many black students in the state, she said. "Word gets out that Winthrop is an open and welcoming environment."
Role of history
Lucille Whipper, a civil rights pioneer from Charleston who has been elected to various state and local offices, has a firm grasp on the college's history when it comes to minority enrollment. Whipper, 86, was a student activist at her high school, the Avery Institute, and her 1944 graduating class sought to desegregate the then-all-white College of Charleston. The college, which was a municipal school at the time, in response became a private institution to avoid integration.
The college desegregated in 1968 and became a state institution in 1970, after which Whipper was appointed to serve as assistant to the president and director of the Office of Human Relations. She was the college's first black administrator and developed its first affirmative action plan.
Whipper said she's a bit surprised that more black students aren't enrolled at the school, even though she knows all state schools compete for the best and brightest students. But the low numbers of black students "don't help the college in the eyes of the community," she said.
Many people think the college's enrollment standards are too high, she said, especially for SAT scores. "So it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some South Carolinians and people in Charleston."
She doesn't know whether the school weighs standardized test scores too heavily, she said, but the college should consider a variety of ways to evaluate students for admission, she said.
Kimberly Ohanuka, a senior at the college, said she and other minority students are working to help turn around the school's history. Ohanuka, who's from Greenville, said she wasn't aware just how few minority students were enrolled at the college until she began her freshman year.
She enrolled in a summer program for incoming minority students and those who are among the first generation in their families to attend college before the start of her freshman year, she said. It was a warm and welcoming group. So she was a bit stunned when she was among only one or two minority students in each of her freshman classes. "It was kind of intimidating."
But she adjusted, she said. She learned well in the college's small classes, something she doubts she would have had at a larger school. And she loves living in the city of Charleston.
Now she's trying to help other minority students in many ways, including as a student ambassador, hosting minority high school students for overnight campus visits, and helping to recruit minority high school students.
Jimmie Foster, the college's assistant vice president for admissions, said the college looks at many factors when deciding which students to accept. "Do we want some of the best students in South Carolina to enroll here? Sure. But that doesn't mean we don't have room for other students, too," Foster said.
College staffers are willing to work with students who don't get accepted to the college for freshman year. They will help students develop plans to get to the college later in their college careers, he said, such as starting at a technical college, and then transferring to the College of Charleston. If students really want to attend the college, he said, "we'll find opportunities to help them get here."
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.
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