South Carolina State University

South Carolina State University in Orangeburg recently announced a partnership with the private for-profit University of Phoenix. File

ORANGEBURG — South Carolina State University's plan to offer online courses via the for-profit University of Phoenix is supposed to help college dropouts return to school and complete their degrees.

It remains to be seen whether the program will work. University of Phoenix has a track record of low graduation rates and high student debt loads, and critics in the higher education community have questioned the company's push to enter into partnerships with historically black colleges and universities.

One thing is clear, though: University of Phoenix stands to make a boatload of money off of the deal.

S.C. State has agreed to pay $395 to University of Phoenix for every online course in which each student enrolls, starting this fall. The public university has sent invitations to about 2,500 former students who have dropped out of its undergraduate programs. If each took just one online class, University of Phoenix would receive almost $1 million.

Returning students who qualify for the Bulldog Academic Resumption Covenant (BARC) program will receive a 50-percent discount on tuition and will have their re-admission fees waived. The students can earn up to 24 percent of their total required credits for graduation through BARC; any remaining credits must be earned in courses directly offered by S.C. State.

S.C. State President James E. Clark pushed back against criticism of the partnership, emphasizing that BARC participants will remain students of S.C. State, not the University of Phoenix.

"All this provides for a student is easier access. If they’ve already started a family, working 8 to 5 every day, they can do that," Clark said. "I would love for University of Phoenix to make a ton of money… That means S.C. State has done something absolutely unique in helping students get their degrees."

Interim Provost Learie Luke said S.C. State is working to create its own online course program, starting with some initial training for professors this year. In the long run, he said S.C. State might ask University of Phoenix to provide training to instructors.

"It takes time to build capacity, so if you want to start running with this, you want to work with somebody who’s long-established in the field while you develop your own capacity," Luke said.

The BARC program comes after years of dwindling enrollment and financial distress at S.C. State, the only public historically black university in South Carolina. The state Legislature voted to forgive $12 million in outstanding loans to the university in 2016, narrowly averting its closure and loss of accreditation. One condition of the loan forgiveness bill was that S.C. State must increase its enrollment, which currently sits at 2,905.

The program could boost enrollment, but some question the benefit for students. S.C. State has a six-year graduation rate of 37 percent, slightly below the national average of 42 percent, according to the latest U.S. Department of Education data. University of Phoenix has a nationwide graduation rate of 16 percent, and an even lower rate of 11 percent at its campus in Columbia.

Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, has sounded an alarm about partnerships like this one since University of Phoenix started a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund in 2014 and announced its ambition to teach students at historically black colleges and universities.

"There’s so much rigorous empirical research that shows the University of Phoenix is merely capitalizing on black and brown students," Gasman said Monday. "I hold suspect any partnership like this."

University of Phoenix has argued that federally reported graduation rates are misleading because they only account for first-time, full-time students, and not the nontraditional students who make up the bulk of the school's enrollment. Contacted via email, University of Phoenix declined to answer questions about the S.C. State deal but instead sent a statement.

"University of Phoenix believes that American students are best served when diverse institutions in the higher education ecosystem work together to improve retention and outcomes," the statement said.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.