Roslyn Artis

Benedict College president Roslyn Artis. Courtesy photo.

Benedict College will phase out majors in history, mathematics and several other fields in an effort to cut down on “unproductive” disciplines in which students don’t seem to be graduating or getting jobs.

It’s just the latest big change at the historically black college in the heart of Columbia since Dr. Roslyn Artis took over as president last year.

She’s cut tuition, raised admission standards, laid off staff and sold property in an effort to make the school more competitive and efficient. She acknowledges it’s a lot of change in a short time.

“I don’t think most people knew what to expect when this tornado touched ground,” she says, but stresses that it’s all part of a plan.

The seven majors on the chopping block — history, religion and philosophy, sociology, political science, transportation and logistics engineering, mathematics, and economics — all have “low numbers of student enrollment, low numbers graduating, and either hard-to-discern or nonexistent data as it relates to what happens to that student when they leave here,” Artis says.

In the case of religion and philosophy, she says, only five students have graduated in that major in 10 years.

Still, it’s a bit surprising for a Baptist-affiliated college to axe its religion major.

“Eliminating the major does not eliminate the discipline,” Artis says. “We will continue to have religion and philosophy classes. We have a full-time chaplain on campus. We have chapel on Thursday, we have services on Sunday. There are lots of ways to enrich and stimulate the spiritual development of our students that doesn’t require them to major in it.”

She also notes that Morris College in Sumter, another Baptist-affiliated HBCU, has “produced the lion’s share of our Baptist clergy [in South Carolina] for many, many, many years.

“Why are we competing with them? If that is a space where they are more productive, more effective, more competitive, then we let them have that space. We’re going to be focused over here on cybersecurity and biology and engineering.”

The latest changes are part of an expanded “onboarding process” and career services that the school is working to develop, aided by a $6 million United Negro College Fund “career pathways” grant it’s sharing with two other HBCUs in South Carolina.

“We’re making sure our students are choosing fields that speak to their career strengths and not just because ‘Mom was a preacher, Dad was a preacher, now I know this is what I’m supposed to do,’” says Tondaleya Jackson, executive vice president of the Career Pathways Initiative and Service Learning at Benedict. “So we’re really having some thoughtful conversations.”

Artis says the changes are part of recognizing who attends the college.

“Our students are overwhelmingly first-generation, low-wealth students for whom education is not merely a hobby,” Artis explains. “They really must acquire hard skills necessary to help them get a job. Their families are depending on them. Unfortunately, many of them will leave with some loan debt by virtue of the inability of their families to sustain them during college, and so we’re putting forth a full court press on helping students make good decisions, helping them be placed in meaningful employment.”

Benedict and its students have struggled with student debt: At one point, in 2013, the school had a student loan default rate higher than its graduation rate of 27 percent, though its default numbers have since dropped.

The seven majors won’t be immediately slashed — current students can graduate in their declared major — but starting with the current incoming class, the school won’t accept any new students in those majors.

“We’ll retain the faculty complement necessary to complete their degree profile,” Artis says. This year, at least, “No one’s losing their job.”

Artis has done some layoffs, though. In December, she eliminated 37 staff — people who may have been necessary when the school had closer to 3,000 students, but who are no longer necessary after several years of dwindling enrollment.

After selling off the school’s three off-campus housing facilities, Artis was able to cut housing staff and campus police. And fewer students means fewer employees were needed in areas like financial aid.

Those staff cuts and property sales have saved the school $3.2 million.

But more recently, Benedict made another big change that could have affected the bottom line in the other direction: lowering tuition by $5,830, from $28,630 to $22,800 a year, to make the school more competitive.

Artis says the potential $12.8 million loss in tuition is offset by the fact that Benedict also changed its payment policies, requiring students to pay at least 90 percent of their now-lower bill to begin classes.

“If you look at what we were actually collecting, and what the students could afford to pay, we actually will be in a stronger net cash position than we were last year,” she says.

At the same time, the college raised its admission standards and capped admission.

“Historically we have been a completely open enrollment institution,” Artis says. “That’s an important mission. … But what we were seeing from the data is that students who came in with less than a 2.0 grade point average out of high school were failing about seven times more than students who had at least a 2.0.”

The school launched a summer bridge program for 47 students who were on the cusp under the new, higher admission standard, requiring them to complete two courses over the summer before they could enter this fall, says Dr. Janeen Witty, vice president of academic affairs.

For Artis, all the changes are part of her strategy to ensure the school and its students have a solid future.

“I think we’re reintroducing Benedict,” she says. “Benedict has always been a part of this community, but it’s been a while since people really took a hard look at us. They know about us, but we haven’t really gotten in there and said ‘You must invest in us — not just coexist with us, but you must invest in us.’”

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