Charleston Southern University leaders say they are working to improve the school's 34 percent graduation rate, one of the lowest in the state among both public and private higher education institutions.

University President Jairy Hunter said he is aware that the six-year graduation rate is low, but the school already has put in place programs to help struggling students. The rate has begun to climb, Hunter said. He said the school's most recent rate is 38 percent, but that percentage is not yet available through federal sources.

Hunter's goal is for the rate to reach 47 percent, which would put the Christian university on par with its "peer" private institutions, he said.

He said school leaders, counselors and professors are in close communication monitoring struggling students and getting them the services they need to succeed.

Erik Corcoran, 22, is a junior majoring in political science. He's taking advantage of the school's Student Success Center services after having a disastrous academic year last year.

Corcoran said he took on far too many extra-curricular activities, got confused about his priorities, and didn't perform well in any of his classes. Academic failure was unusual for him, Corcoran said. So he reached out for help at the start of the current school year. He knew he needed a hand to get out of an academic hole, and he's getting the help he needs, he said.

Counselor Bobbie Black meets with Corcoran at least weekly.

Black said Corcoran mostly needs someone to be accountable to, and he needs support as he gets back on track.

Other students need tutoring, financial counseling, or help dealing with family problems, she said. She and the other counselors can meet and work with students one-to-one, she said. "At a small college, you can do that."

"Everybody is trying to make sure nobody falls through the cracks," she said.

Hunter said students drop out or take breaks from Charleston Southern for many reasons, but financial problems top the list. Tuition at private institutions is higher than at public schools, even though most Charleston Southern students receive at least some financial aid, he said.

Charleston Southern does not receive operating money from the state, but its students receive state-funded financial assistance to pay for college. In the 2010-2011 school year, Charleston Southern students received $7.1 million in scholarships and grants, paid for with money from state appropriations and the South Carolina Education Lottery.

Hunter said many students also receive aid raised by the university, but many still must work and take out student loans.

Debbie Williamson, the university's vice president of enrollment management, said private school graduates who must borrow money often graduate with about $25,000 in debt. She thinks that holds true for Charleston Southern students. But she can't estimate the amount of debt carried by students who drop out.

Hunter said Charleston Southern serves a diverse student body with many non- traditional and working students who have commitments and responsibilities that often impede their progress. "We're not a traditional school, and that's by design," he said. Sometimes students take breaks and return a few years later. Those students often count against the school's graduation rate because they don't complete degrees within six years. "We need to stop and do some foundational work with students sometimes," Hunter said. "That's what we're good at."

The school's 34 percent graduation rate comes from the National Center for Education Statistics's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The most recent data available through the system is for freshmen who enrolled in the fall of 2004 and who graduated by the spring of 2010.

Most of the state's private, non-profit colleges and all of it's public four-year institutions fared better than Charleston Southern during that time.

For example, Wofford University's graduation rate was 82 percent, Presbyterian University's rate was 68 percent and Anderson University's rate was 54 percent. Only four of the state's 21 private, non-profit universities fared worse than Charleston Southern: Allen University, with a 19 percent graduation rate, Morris College with a 30 percent rate, Benedict College, with a 31 percent rate, and Voorhees College, with a rate of 25 percent.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.