South Carolina lawmakers will have the final word on if Denmark Technical College, a historically-black two-year school, will continue to exist or be merged into a predominantly white Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College stationed 40 miles away.
Denmark’s fate isn’t tied to institutional incompetence or theft, obsolete academic programs, or accreditation loss; the school faces death because people stopped attending. Enrollment at the school which trains barbers, cosmetologists, and nurses while offering a springboard to four-year training in the arts and sciences, has plummeted nearly 80 percent over the last decade as the state dealt with a growing crisis for all of its community and technical schools.
More high school graduates who are eligible choose four-year or online degree programs. Federal and state governments across the country are looking to boost enrollment at community colleges as an affordable, accessible choice for a nation that is growing poorer but still needs to fill jobs, but South Carolina has lost 97,000 of its two-year students in quick and painful fashion.
There is no in-depth analysis for DTC’s fate; it’s in an economically depressed region of the state and has a mission which no longer resonates with most people who are interested in and can afford higher education. But what does deserve in-depth analysis is that the statewide crisis facing all of South Carolina’s tech and community colleges seemed to hit its only historically black two-year institution first and hardest.
There’s an argument to be made about the state divesting in the school and irreparably damaging its potential for growth and its impact on the local economy, estimated to be about $34 million according to the United Negro College Fund’s recent impact study. But the state has every right to divest in a business it owns which isn’t attracting customers, and there’s little argument to be made against the notion of redirecting taxpayer money to campuses which have a fighting chance of survival.
But this story should be a stern warning to four-year institutions around the country. The message is clear for other HBCUs as it was for Concordia College of Alabama just a month ago: if black students aren’t enrolling, the history of the campus and its value to the community will mean nothing. Denmark Tech, like most two-year schools, was a pathway to a job – not a credential that made its graduates eligible for a job.
It’s a reality not lost on local employers. From the Post-Courier:
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.”
That’s the kind of testimonial all HBCUs should clamor to earn from industrial partners like hospitals, secondary school systems, agribusinesses, police departments, media companies, nonprofits, utility companies, and laboratories nationwide. But instead, we’re left pining for companies to explain how they intend to be more active in recruiting from HBCUs, and surveying about what could make them more connected in black college communities.
If black students across this country do not continue to enroll in HBCUs in record numbers, this storyline will repeat itself all over the country. It won’t be something you’ll see coming from a few years in advance like Stillman or Bennett; it will be the sudden announcements that campuses will temporarily or permanent shutter due to their inability to make payroll or to make payments on outstanding loan debts.
Two HBCUs stand out for their ability to cash in on the currency of miracles. Generations ago, a choir of young black men and women hit the road performing and raising money to save a tiny liberal arts juggernaut in Nashville that survived because of their talent and added years to the name and legacy of Fisk University.
Eleven years ago, a lawyer serving on an HBCU board of trustees took a job when they couldn’t find anyone else to take over a school with 30 days of cash in the bank. He turned its football field into a farm, hit the road recruiting and fundraising and damn near single-handedly saved Paul Quinn College in Dallas.
Denmark won’t have that kind of resurrection, and neither will most of the four-year black colleges counting down the days until they have to make that tragic closure announcement. We can only hope that Black America wakes up in time before too many black communities have to pay the price for our love of stories that end with miracles.