COLUMBIA -- The head of South Carolina State University says he plans to market the historically black school to students of all races as a way to increase enrollment in tight budget times.
President George Cooper, who has ranked greater diversity on campus among his top priorities, said he expects the numbers of non-black students to increase next school year, though he could not give specifics.
"There's tremendous opportunity to educate students of this state who may not be black. They may be white. They may be Hispanic. They may come from other ethnic groups. Those are the students we're reaching out to because many of these minority populations have not had opportunities," Cooper recently told The Associated Press in an interview about his first six months on the job.
Cooper came to the school from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where, as a former deputy administrator, he worked with land grant colleges such as South Carolina State, which the state created in 1896.
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Cooper said he tells faculty and alumni groups the school will always be an HBCU.
"We have to be smart today," he said, noting the state's growing Hispanic population. "We're just going to be targeting other students in these areas that we've traditionally served, and I think because we're reaching out to them and their parents and their families, they're going to choose to come to S.C. State."
Of the school's more than 4,500 students, about 97 percent are black. Cooper hopes enrollment will reach 6,000 within three years, as he seeks to continue -- in the face of declining state funds -- to provide students the education they need to move up the socio-economic ladder.
Since July, South Carolina State has lost $8 million -- 34 percent of its state funding -- as state revenues shrunk by $1 billion. In response, the school has required all employees to take seven days of unpaid leave, cut travel and frozen hiring.
Cooper is hopeful the federal stimulus package will give the school a boost and help it be more competitive once the economy improves.
"It gives us short-term opportunity for gain," he said, noting many of the aging buildings on campus are in need of repair. "My hope is that the state won't see it as another basis for cutting support to S.C. State because we're getting federal funds."
About half of the school's students come from homes where the family income is less than $20,000 yearly, so federal financial aid does not cover students' costs. Another priority for Cooper is raising money for more needs-based scholarships. He's set a goal of $2.6 million but acknowledges it's going slowly, and that it's tough to make those calls to alumni during a recession.
In-state students -- which make up 87 percent of campus -- pay about $14,000 yearly in tuition and fees. With state support shrinking, tuition increases are a possibility, Cooper said.