Candace Livingston considered other colleges, but she applied to only one: Winthrop University, a public liberal arts college in suburban Rock Hill.
Livingston, 21, an aspiring social studies teacher from Georgetown, was attracted to Winthrop's top-notch teacher education program and its diverse student body.
About 30 percent of Winthrop's students, like Livingston, are black. Many of them rely on Pell grants, a federal subsidy for low-income students, and many are also the first in their family to go to college.
At other universities, these students might not succeed. But at Winthrop, many do.
Winthrop is one of three South Carolina colleges identified in a new report as a top-performing institution for black students. According to Education Trust, an education advocacy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., black students at Winthrop — and at Francis Marion University in Florence and the University of South Carolina in Aiken — graduate at a higher rate than white students in reverse of a prevailing national trend.
Although more black students than ever are attending four-year colleges, less than half of them nationally are leaving with a bachelor's degree in hand.
Only 41 percent of black students who enrolled as full-time freshmen at four-year institutions in the fall of 2008 graduated within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — 22 percent lower than the graduation rate for white students.
Experts blame this gap on socioeconomic challenges that disproportionately harm black students, particularly inequities in K through 12 education. Black students, for example, are more likely than white students to go to lower-funded schools with inexperienced teachers and substandard curriculum. As a result, many graduate from high school less prepared for the rigors of college.
"There are a lot of things you see happening in K-12 that continue into higher ed," said Andrew Nichols, a researcher for Education Trust and one of the report's authors. "When you get to campus, there may be some academic skills that need to be developed once they become college students. It's important for the institutions that admit them to do the hard work to make sure those students get their degree."
The average six-year graduation rate for black students at Winthrop is 56.2 percent. That's 3.5 percentage points higher than its average six-year graduation rate for white students, calculated by Education Trust researchers.
At Francis Marion, black students graduate at an average rate of 43.2 percent, nearly 3 percentage points higher than the rate for whites. Similarly, black students at the University of South Carolina in Aiken graduate at a rate of 42.6 percent, about 2 percentage points higher.
While Winthrop, Francis Marion and USC Aiken have lower six-year graduation rates than more academically competitive colleges like Clemson University or USC's flagship in Columbia, they enroll a larger proportion of students who face more hurdles in their pursuit of a college degree.
Francis Marion tends to attract students from impoverished areas of the Pee Dee region of the state, said Fred Carter, the longtime president of the university. About two-thirds of all freshmen at Francis Marion are Pell Grant recipients, and almost half of the student body is black.
To help these students develop the skills they need to succeed in college, particularly in math and writing, Francis Marion offers one-on-one tutoring at its Tutoring and Writer Centers. Freshmen at risk of failing also receive intensive academic support through the new Center for Academic Success and Advisement.
Carter also credits Francis Marion's "nurturing faculty" for the university's success in closing the graduation gap.
"When you look at some of these school districts and look at these kids that come out of these schools, again they're terrific young men and women, but they need help when they come to college," Carter said. "It's not lowering the bar ... It's offering advice and one-to-one support, mentoring and tutoring that essentially get those students through the process."
Similar resources are available at Winthrop University, including an Academic Success Center where trained tutors provide their services in the majority of the university's general education courses, according to Gloria Jones, dean of Winthrop's University College.
Winthrop also provisionally admits some first-year students whose standardized test scores, grades or class rank don't meet the university's admission criteria. These students are required to successfully complete Winthrop's Learning Excellent Academic Practices program to gain full admission for their second year.
LEAP students must attend mandatory study sessions three nights a week. Tutoring is also available for writing, history and math. Before students submit any assignments in their Writing 101 or Human Experience 102 classes, they must review and discuss drafts of their papers with LEAP staff.
"I think they need to understand that they have the ability, they just might not have the same preparation," Jones said. "So we're gonna do whatever we can to get them up to where they need to be."
Livingston, who will graduate from Winthrop on Saturday, said her soon-to-be alma mater doesn't stigmatize students who need tutoring or additional help. Students receive incentives, such as drawings for prizes, to use the campus' tutoring services.
When Livingston was a freshman, struggling in Math 150, she turned to the Academic Success Center for help.
"It's one of the most difficult freshman courses," she said. "(The Academic Success Center) helped me be more confident in that class."