The EvoLLLution | A USC Approach to Degree Completion: Leveraging Palmetto College to Drive Adult Enrollments
Launching and leveraging an adult-focused college within the USC system is helping to drive adult enrollments, improve overall degree completion and support the health of the state’s labor force.

By 2020, 65 percent of all US jobs will require a postsecondary credential, and economic development in South Carolina necessitates an increase of at least 70,000 individuals holding postsecondary degrees by 2030. The University of South Carolina system, with eight campuses across 19 locations, serves over 50,000 students and is a critical partner in efforts to meet these educational goals.

The USC System has responded to the rising demand for postsecondary degrees in a number of innovative ways, but there remains a large number of South Carolinians with partially finished degrees. About 21 percent of the South Carolina population has earned some college credits but not completed a degree. Moreover, the state hosts a large technical college system which graduates a number of students who would like to—or need to—transfer to a baccalaureate-granting institution to complete their degrees.

Our geographic reach and programmatic depth affords the University of South Carolina an excellent platform to serve non-traditional students who are seeking ways to earn or complete a degree. Students can begin their education at a community college or a technical school close to home, but many are unable to transfer to a geographically distant institution. Four years ago, USC created a system-wide distributed learning degree completion program called Palmetto College in order to facilitate degree completion for these students.

Palmetto College was created for two distinct purposes. First, Palmetto College manages all four University of South Carolina two-year regional campuses, which are led by deans. The consolidation of these units under one umbrella streamlined administration, created more efficiencies in existing programs, and strengthened the role of these units and their connection to the research university in Columbia. Consolidating the management and operation of the four regional universities was a relatively straightforward process. These units have long provided excellent associate degree programs and outreach in their local community. Being linked in the same college structure allows them to share best practices in enrollment management, financial services, student advising, recruitment and other operational areas; and the Palmetto College rubric gives these units a higher profile.

The creation of Palmetto College had an additional goal: to develop a targeted, online, undergraduate degree completion program drawing on the talent and resources of all four of the system’s four-year campuses, Aiken, Beaufort, Columbia, and Upstate, to provide the programming. The degree programs are created, maintained and assessed by the home institution of the degree—that is, one of the four-year independently accredited universities in the system—but the two-year institutions take the lead on student recruitment and services. The two-year campuses are the lead partners in this program because online or distributed learning programs work best when there is a physical location available to students who need to meet with advisors, use the library, and access other services and support. Moreover, students who begin their studies on one of the regional campuses have access to quality programs backed by the entire system without having to relocate. Palmetto College does not award these baccalaureate degrees but manages the program and recruits, advise, and assists students as they pursue their educational goals.

Palmetto College programs are open to any student who has 45 credit hours from an accredited college. The College is engaged in an ambitious media campaign to reach students who left college prior to obtaining a four-year degree, and the USC System works collaboratively with the South Carolina Technical College System on student transfers. The state’s technical college system, comprised of 16 technical colleges located strategically across the state, welcomes the opportunity to offer their students four-year degree completion distance programs from the state’s major baccalaureate system. It is not unusual, for example, to see Palmetto College degree completion programs referenced and advertised on the technical schools’ websites.

The initial Palmetto College programs were selected based on statewide needs, faculty expertise and student interests. An early initiative was the conversion of a general liberal arts degree to a distributed learning format. Students in this program can build on existing credits and major in either humanities or social sciences.

The need for individuals with degrees in business galvanized the development of several Palmetto College degrees: business administration with a focus on management or accounting (USC Aiken), organizational leadership (USC Columbia), and hospitality or non-profit management sector (USC Beaufort). The need for employees with expertise in the technical side of the information flow led to the development of degrees in information science (USC Columbia) and information management and systems (USC Upstate). Careers in corrections, law enforcement and law inspired the criminal justice degree (USC Upstate).

The State Department of Education has released a report noting that our teacher shortage is “critical,” and predicted to worsen over the next 10 years. Each year 4,000 teachers retire, but only about 2,000 new teachers graduate to replace them. Whereas all of our four-year institutions have strong teacher education programs, school principals struggle to find qualified subject-area teachers in specific regions of the state. We currently offer elementary education (USC Columbia) and special education (USC Aiken) as distributed learning programs designed to increase the number of qualified teachers in these critical areas.

In South Carolina, 59 percent of nurses do not hold baccalaureate degrees. In the interests of patient care and safety, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that we increase the number of baccalaureate-prepared nurses to 80 percent by 2020. Palmetto College has responded to this and other health care workforce needs through its USC Upstate online RN to BSN completion program, as well as programs in health informatics and health promotion.

The development of new offerings for the program occurs each year after a careful planning and analysis process. Future program development is focused on the annual South Carolina Department of Commerce and the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data that estimates the future employment levels for many occupations. Whereas the program will never encompass all of the undergraduate degrees in the system, the iterative, system-wide planning process insures that the program will be aligned with student and state needs.

One of the ongoing challenges for Palmetto College is the fact that through Palmetto College students earn their degree from one college while identifying themselves as an alumni of another. More work is being done on the branding and identity of the college. Each USC institution has its own brand and although programs depend on cooperation throughout the system, each degree has an academic home. These degrees are not “system degrees” but academic degrees offered by the constituent universities. These challenges, however, are not impeding progress.

Palmetto College remains an important catalyst for effective coordination and collaboration across the USC System in its commitment to improving college completion rates. Palmetto College affords thousands of students across the state the opportunity to complete their undergraduate degree in a flexible, cost effective and convenient way.

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