COLUMBIA - The University of South Carolina is the state’s first public college to offer residents a way to earn a bachelor’s degree at home, provided they earn their first two years of credits in the classroom.
The university expects to launch Palmetto College next fall with half-dozen degree programs, including business, criminal justice, elementary education, nursing and organizational leadership - programs chosen for their demand and practicality.
“The call of this is to provide access to people who don’t have access to our regular campuses,” said USC provost Michael Amiridis. “In many cases, they’re looking for professional advancement or a job.”
As the first step, USC launched Back to Carolina this semester, which offered a single, general degree: liberal studies. Only former USC students 25 and older could apply. More than 30 are enrolled, averaging in their mid-30s.
USC received $5 million in this year’s state budget for Palmetto College, jumpstarting the broadened concept by several years.
Much of the money pays to convert courses to an online format.
“It’s not just putting a camera in the classroom and capturing it,” Amiridis said. “You’re creating a new model on the Internet.”
Degrees will be offered through USC’s four-year campuses in Aiken, Spartanburg, Beaufort and the main Columbia campus. USC’s four two-year satellite campuses are in Lancaster, Sumter, and Union; USC-Salkehatchie has branches in Allendale and Walterboro.
USC officials have touted the program as a way for graduates of those satellite campuses to earn a four-year degree without relocating. But anyone who has amassed 60 hours of credits can apply, whether from a local technical school or out-of-state college.
However, not everyone is accepted. Half of the 120 people who applied to Back to Carolina were taken. Tuition bills further whittled down the numbers, said vice provost Lacy Ford.
“It’s not open enrollment. We treat admissions very seriously,” Amiridis said. “We want to make sure the people we bring in have a reasonable chance of success. ... This is going to be as rigorous as an on-campus course.”
As for why students must already have 60 hours, he said, “During those first two years, students build some of the skills you need to build face-to-face - mature to the point they can handle this a little bit better.”
The idea accomplishes two goals. It expands access to higher education in a state where fewer than one in four adults hold a bachelor’s degree, hopefully boosting residents’ wages. It also provides the public university a new revenue source in an era when money designated in the state budget makes up less than 10 percent of its budget.
A quarter of the Back to Carolina students live outside South Carolina, paying out-of-state tuition rates, Ford said.
“We’re a public mission university - very public-minded - and at the same time we’re privately funded,” Amiridis said. “Everything we do has to be at the intersection of the two.”
USC officials expect to launch Palmetto College with fewer than 500 students, but Amiridis believes enrollment could grow by the thousands. Tuition will be less than for-profit colleges that offer exclusively online degrees, and face-to-face help will be within a 45-minute drive. Advisers and technology assistance will be available at all USC campuses, he said.