S.C. State’s welcome progress

South Carolina State University announced a $1.1 million budget surplus this year. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)

South Carolina State University has struggled with financial problems for years, even to the extent that some legislators suggested earlier this year that it should be shut down. So the recent news that the Orangeburg school expects to end the fiscal year with a $1.1 million surplus is especially heartening.

So, too, is the fact that enrollment is higher than predicted. The university’s available housing is 93 percent occupied. And SCSU has plans to pay the U.S. Department of Education a $333,406 penalty that the school accrued beginning in 2009.

Of course, the school still has debt. The state loaned S.C. State $6 million to help with its debts, and is in line to lend it another $4 million this calendar year and $1 million the next.

But one major debt, $12 million to vendors — $6 million of it to Sodexo, which provides food for the college’s dining hall — has been reduced significantly. And further, the school has cut in half its annual expenditures for food services.

Edward Patrick, vice president for finance and management, is optimistic about the university’s future. It is saving money in maintenance, utilities and salaries. And, he says, school leaders now have the “nimbleness to change our curriculum very quickly” to respond to student demand, or lack of it, for courses.

Mr. Patrick was appointed to his position in March. He has 25 years experience as an accounting and finance management executive — in areas that include business and higher education.

Another big change has been an all-new S.C. State Board of Trustees appointed by the General Assembly after it fired the previous board in May in hopes of addressing the drop in enrollment, critical audits, poor management, financial problems and the threatened loss of academic accreditation. Replacing the board was an essential move.

Five of the seven trustees, who will serve through mid-2018, have business or finance backgrounds. One trustee worked in higher education; another helped win four Super Bowls after graduating from the college.

Charles Way, chairman of The Beach Co. real estate development firm in Charleston and a former S.C. secretary of Commerce, serves as chairman of the board.

Mr. Way has said he hopes most of the school’s debt will be paid by year’s end.

Mr. Patrick said the school is “willing to make difficult decisions.” Realistically, there could be more to come as S.C. State digs itself out of debt and repairs damage done to its reputation.

But as the state’s only historically black university that is publicly owned, it is well worth the effort. S.C. State serves many students who are the first in their families to attend college. It accepts many students with financial need and some who wouldn’t qualify for admission at other four-year schools.

Rebuilding the school administratively and dealing with its debt are the first essential steps to ensure that it can continue its vital, historic mission.

The ongoing recovery is good news for the university and the state.