The College of Charleston's plan to offer doctoral degrees aligned with local business needs took a step forward Tuesday, when it got approval from a key Commission on Higher Education committee.

The full commission likely will take a final vote on the plan Sept. 4, during its retreat at Clemson University, said Julie Carullo, the commission's deputy executive director.

College leaders and local legislators originally thought the school needed approval from the General Assembly to become a designated research university and offer doctoral degrees. But a move to get that approval during the last legislative session failed. After the combative session, which came to a close in June, college officials learned that the state's Commission on Higher Education had the authority to OK the plan by approving the college's amended mission statement without getting approval from the General Assembly.

State and business leaders have said offering doctoral degrees locally is important because it could attract more companies looking for highly educated and skilled workers to the region.

Brian McGee, the college's interim provost, said the commission's Committee on Academic Affairs and Licensing approved the college's revised mission statement and will recommend to the full commission that it do the same. The commission must approve a change in the college's mission statement before it can offer doctoral degrees. Now, the school is limited by state law to offering only bachelor's and master's degrees. Under state law, institutions must have research university status before they can offer doctoral degrees.

McGee said the committee's decision was an important step in the process. He thinks it demonstrates that members of the college, business and government communities are working well together.

He also said the college's basic structure is different from that of most other universities, so its revised mission statement also is different. In most research institutions, he said, the main entity is the university, which is comprised of different schools.

In the College of Charleston's case, however, the main entity is the college. Under it falls various schools and the University of Charleston South Carolina. The University of Charleston was established by state lawmakers and the school's Board of Trustees in 1992 to house master's degree programs, McGee said. If the school's amended mission statement ultimately is approved, doctoral programs will fall there as well.

McGee said even if the commission approves the plan, it will be years before the college offers doctoral programs. Each individual program would have to gain approval from the college's faculty, administration and board, as well as the commission and the school's accrediting agency, the South Association of Colleges and Schools.

McGee also stressed that the school only would offer specific programs that are needed in the area. The college is not trying to becoming a comprehensive research university, he said.

"Comprehensive research university is a misnomer for what we're trying to do at the College of Charleston," he said. "As President (Glenn) McConnell has said, we have no intentions for it to be the University of South Carolina or Clemson."

Mary Graham, senior vice president for business advocacy for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said her group worked with former President George Benson on the plan, and continues to work with McConnell, the school's new president. And Chamber members recently met with the college's faculty to discuss what the business community thinks are gaps between programs the college now offers and the region's business needs, such as doctoral programs in information technology and logistics. she said.

The collaborative efforts are going well, she said. And the committee approval is a good sign things will move forward in a positive direction.

"We're excited about this decision."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.