DENMARK — Beyond the front gates of Denmark Technical College was an expanse of empty parking spaces. It was an overcast Monday afternoon, the campus was open, but not a single student was in sight. 

It was not unusual.

Over the past decade, enrollment at South Carolina's only state-supported historically black technical college has plummeted 77 percent, from 2,277 students in 2008 to 523 students this past fall.

Because Denmark Tech's revenue is driven overwhelmingly by tuition dollars, the college's financial position has crumbled: Audits show Denmark Tech's fund balance has dropped by almost $5 million, from $6.9 million to $2.1 million, during the past two years.

Denmark Tech, a two-year college, might be the state's first casualty in an impending crisis in higher education as fewer students pursue college degrees. Blame exploding tuition costs, an improving economy, lower birth rates and growing skepticism about the value of a college education, especially if it's attained by running up debt.

Enrollment at colleges and universities has slid every year since the fall of 2011, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Apart from for-profit institutions, two-year community colleges have witnessed the most dramatic declines in enrollment. They had 97,000 fewer students this past fall than the year before. 

'A different climate'

In May 2017, Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill temporarily transferring oversight of the embattled Denmark Technical College from the local area commission to the State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education, an agency that oversees all 16 of the state's technical colleges.

Citing sinking enrollment, financial instability, crumbling facilities and out-dated equipment, the State Board issued a letter in January formally recommending that Denmark Technical College close and that Orange-Calhoun Technical College subsume its service area.

Denmark Tech's future now rests with the General Assembly.  

"While 40 to 50 years ago, Denmark Tech worked extremely well and was a fine institution, in particular for minority students to be able to access higher education," said Tim Hardee, president of the S.C. Technical College System, who signed the letter along with State Tech Board Chairman Ralph Odom Jr. "It's a different climate."

Denmark Tech opened in 1948, with authorization from the General Assembly, as a local branch of the South Carolina Trade School System charged with educating the state's black residents. In 1979, the school was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and renamed Denmark Technical College. 

The college primarily serves students in rural Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell counties, where more than a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line. But in recent years, those students chose to attend community college elsewhere.

According to the State Board's letter, more than 400 students from those three counties attended another surrounding technical college last fall. More than 75 percent of them headed for Orangeburg-Calhoun. 

Supporters of keeping Denmark Tech open, including members of the state's Legislative Black Caucus, say the college has suffered from leadership turnover and chronic underfunding. Unlike other technical colleges, Denmark Tech receives no financial support from the counties it serves, Hardee said. Meanwhile, rumors about its closure have hindered recruitment.

Its supporters also worry about the economic fallout of closing Denmark Tech. According to a 2014 study commissioned by the United Negro College Fund, Denmark Tech generates $32 million annually and 374 jobs for its local and regional economies.

"It’s one of the largest employers from a strictly economic perspective in the area," said Denmark Mayor Gerald Wright. "The focus should be on what it is that needs to change rather than closing it down."

Denmark Tech Interim President Christoper Hall, hired by the State Tech Board last January, said the college has made difficult decisions to right its financial ship. In May 2017, before the State Tech Board took over, Denmark Tech employed 63 staff and 29 faculty members. That has since dropped to 45 staff and 25 faculty members. 

"I feel that Denmark, because of its history in the area, because we know our students, and because faculty and staff are from the same area, I think we are in a unique position to serve the area better," Hall said. "Until they (lawmakers) make a decision, I'm going full speed ahead."

A 'love-hate thing' 

Meanwhile, the college is continuing to invest in improving its equipment and programs, Hall said, touting its popular nursing program and partnerships with local high schools and businesses.

Since 2011, for example, the American Zinc Recycling facility in Barnwell has teamed up with Denmark Tech to provide an apprenticeship program for entry-level employees seeking certification in electro-mechanical industrial maintenance. Eric Stroom, the plant manager, said the program is a vital part of his workforce development.

"More importantly, it develops and provides a skill set that I desperately need in my operation, so it’s a win all the way around," Stroom said. "I can't necessarily speak for the programs delivered on campus, but I can certainly speak of the dedication and commitment and competencies of the staff that have worked for us here."

Jarvis Kershaw, a 24-year-old from Charleston who attended Denmark Tech from 2015 to2017 before transferring to Allen University, a four-year college in Columbia, was well aware of Denmark Tech's shortcomings.

It was not uncommon, he said, for professors and students to discuss in class ways that the school could improve. The dorms, he said, were just "OK." Other buildings were rundown or unused. And there was little to do between classes, Kerhsaw said. He and his friends usually spent their free time playing football, basketball or cards, or working out in the campus gym. 

But Kershaw credited Denmark Tech with making him a better student and job candidate. Recruited to play on the college's competitive basketball team, he studied computer technology. At Denmark, he raised his GPA and eventually landed a summer internship at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., where he did research.

Denmark "paid for everything," so he could travel to and live in Livermore while receiving a stipend from the National Laboratory. Kershaw describes his summer in California as the "best experience of my life." 

And the small, tight-knit college community felt "like family."

”It was like a love-hate thing sometimes," Kershaw said of his time at Denmark Tech. "But it was good school."

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764 and follower her on Twitter @DDpan. 

Deanna Pan is an enterprise reporter for The Post and Courier, where she writes about education and other issues. She grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in English from Ohio State University in 2012.