SMC Explores Offering Four-Year Degree
by Lisa Mincey Ware
Graduating students during SMC’s May 2016 Commencement Exercises.
This article appeared originally in the Fall/Winter issue of Frontiers Magazine.
Since its founding in 1911, Spartanburg Methodist College’s name has changed, but its mission has remained the same: to provide an education to students who would not ordinarily have the opportunity.
Over the past century, the college has adapted to the needs of its students, says Courtney Shelton, vice president for professional development and Design. “When we were Textile Industrial Institute, we replaced the grade school curriculum to offer associate degrees as Spartanburg Junior College,” she says. “In the ’70s, we began offering evening and weekend classes to better serve working adults. Now, students can earn an associate degree before they leave high school. It’s time to adapt again.”
Students can earn an associate degree at the same time they earn their high school diploma through dual enrollment programs, President Scott Cochran says. Advanced Placement classes also allow high school students to earn college credit. “Students are increasingly able to enter college as juniors and seniors,” he notes. “We still believe there is great value in the associate degree for a segment of the population, but the market is changing, and we need to proactively respond to those changes.”
One solution, Cochran continues, is offering the option of a four-year degree along with the college’s current associate degree programs. “SMC has had these conversations, on and off, since 1991,” he says. “There have always been compelling reasons to remain an exclusively two-year college before, but there’s a new urgency to this discussion.”
In February, the SMC Board of Trustees approved a request by college administrators to begin exploring the addition of a four-year program.
“We’re not just going to flip a switch and become a four-year college. We’re considering adding a bachelor’s degree, but have made no decisions yet about what exactly that will be,” Cochran cautions. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we can make a recommendation to the board. We’re taking the time necessary to proactively deal with the changes happening in higher education while still ensuring we’re examining all of the options.”
Shelton says there’s a lot of excitement and optimism on campus for the idea of offering a bachelor’s degree. “For decades, students have wanted to finish their education at SMC. We do offer them the option to live at SMC and complete a four-year degree online via other college programs, but this would be the first four-year degree offered by SMC.”
Any new degree options must first be approved by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, SMC’s accrediting organization, Shelton notes.
A committee of faculty, staff and administrators, led by Shelton, has been appointed to study the possibility of a four-year program. The collaboration has generated a number of viable options for further study, she says. “Our highest priority, the idea driving our work, is to make sure SMC remains true to its mission.”
Approximately 35 percent of SMC students are the first in their families to attend college. Forty-two percent are minority students. Both groups, Shelton says, are statistically likely to be underprepared to meet college expectations. “Many of our students are juggling work and school. They may be a source of financial support for their families. If they’re unable to complete a college degree, it can mean a real difference in their quality of life and the quality of life in our communities.”
“We’ve been very successful at helping our students get a degree by giving them the support they need at an affordable price,” says Cochran, referring to the college’s Full Tuition Scholarship offer for students who qualify for the South Carolina LIFE Scholarship. “Eighty-two percent of our students transition to full-time employment or transfer to a four-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree.” Cochran points out that only about 38 percent of students who enroll at a public two-year college complete a degree, either there or at a four-year school.
Shelton says SMC’s strong advising program, small class sizes and close-knit community can help at-risk students succeed. “We’re not talking about getting rid of the associate degree programs. We believe it’s important that our students have a degree to show for their first two years of school. We also know we can’t become just another four-year private liberal arts college,” she says. “What we offer here is working for our students, and if we can
find a way to make it work even better for them for all four years of their education – in whatever form that takes and if we decide to go
in that direction – then we’ll know we’ve made the right choice for the college’s future.”
The committee plans to present its recommendations to the SMC Board of Trustees at an upcoming meeting.
“This discussion is happening in the right way and at the right time. I have absolute faith in our committee’s ability to assess the options and to make a recommendation that adds even more value for our students,” Cochran says. “It’s an exciting time to be a Pioneer.”