South Carolina

Threatened HBCU Denmark Tech brings jobs and money to one of the poorest parts of SC

Laila Donaldson, a sophomore at Denmark-Olar High School, is taking a mechatronics class at Denmark Technical College. The classes are offered to the high schoolers in a dual enrollment program where the students can take classes for an associates degree for free, while completing their high school requirements. 10/16/19
Laila Donaldson, a sophomore at Denmark-Olar High School, is taking a mechatronics class at Denmark Technical College. The classes are offered to the high schoolers in a dual enrollment program where the students can take classes for an associates degree for free, while completing their high school requirements. 10/16/19

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South Carolina’s historically black colleges and universities

Read more of The State’s series on HBCUs in South Carolina and what the future holds for some of the state’s most essential schools.

Duncan Williams doesn’t have many student customers, but if Denmark Technical College closed, his business would still take a hit.

That’s because while many students go home when they get sick, faculty, staff, contractors and others doing business at Denmark Tech still get their prescriptions filled at Daniels’ Pharmacy, which he owns.

Williams has lived in Denmark, S.C., for 70 years, raising all of his children there. In that time, he’s watched the economy contract, the population dwindle and jobs leave.

“We’ve had almost all the industries close down in this city,” Williams said.

Helen Bruner, who runs Helen’s Florist in Denmark and has been in the Bamberg County town for 43 years, has already felt pressure because of a declining student population at Denmark Tech, she said.

“You can really tell how much it has gone down,” Bruner said. “I don’t know how much more we could downsize.”

Denmark Technical College, which serves Bamberg, Barnwell and Allendale counties, has struggled more than any other S.C. Historically Black College and University in recent years and has faced the threat of more downsizing from the state legislature. Hanging in the balance is not just the state’s only historically black technical college, but also a primary economic engine in a particularly vulnerable part of the state.

“You think about Denmark Tech bringing in 400-500 kids, they have to eat somewhere; they have to shop somewhere; they have to get gas,” said Bamberg County Councilman Trent Kinard.

For the region, Denmark Tech’s estimated economic impact is $32 million, according to the United Negro College Fund.

For Bamberg County — home to two HBCUs, Denmark Tech and Voorhees College — education represents a stable, middle-class job in an area where such jobs are hard to come by.

Education is the second-largest industry in Bamberg County, just behind manufacturing, according to the S.C. Department of Employment & Workforce, or DEW.

In a county where the unemployment rate is 6.3 percent, nearly twice the state and national averages, education has a turnover rate of 3.1 percent, the lowest for any major industry, according to DEW data.

In Bamberg County, the median household income was $32,330 in 2017, according to U.S. Census data. Meanwhile, the average salary in Bamberg County’s education industry is $36,660, which is the seventh-highest paying industry in the county. The education industry is expected to grow 1.5 percent per year until 2024, which is more than manufacturing, real estate, information technology and transportation, according to department data.

That is, assuming Denmark Tech stays open. Last year, lawmakers considered a proposal to restructure the school that critics say would have downsized it into a trade school, and would eventually lead to the school closing, Kinard said.

But that proposal died in the Senate, said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, who favored restructuring Denmark Tech. Since then, even some lawmakers aren’t clear on what are the next steps for Denmark Tech.

“I have no idea what the expectations are for Denmark Tech,” Cobb-Hunter said. However, “If enrollment is up...we’re going to be very pleased.”

Denmark Tech is not in Kinard’s county council district, but he has spent days driving to the State House lobbying lawmakers at rallies and press conferences to keep the school open because it is such a powerful economic driver in Bamberg County, he said.

Bamberg County has been beleaguered by the loss of industry and can’t afford to keep losing jobs, Kinard said. Most recently, the doormaker Masonite International Corp moved out of Denmark, costing the county of 14,275 people 110 jobs, according to recent articles in the Times & Democrat.

“The ones we got we’re trying to hold tight,” Kinard said.

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Between 2008 and 2018, the school’s enrollment plummeted 83 percent, prompting calls from both Republican and Democratic state lawmakers to downsize or consolidate it with Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical School.

Denmark Tech’s enrollment has been particularly volatile. The number of students dropped from 2,277 in 2008 to 1,105 in 2009; increased to 2,003 in 2012 before steadily declining. By 2018, Denmark had an enrollment of 374, according to Commission on Higher Education data.

2018 enrollment numbers are the most recent available.

Denmark Tech Interim President Christopher Hall, who has been at the school since early 2017, is not sure what caused the drop-off. But he thinks it might be because of changes that limited access to financial aid in 2012 and the looming threat Denmark Tech may be downgraded to a trade school or absorbed by Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College.

Those who have opposed downgrading Denmark Tech have said that would likely spell the end of the school.

“The key to keeping Denmark Tech open is trying to remove this shadow,” Hall said. “About once a year we have this proposal that Denmark may close, so even when we talk to new students, students who have interest right now in the college, they’re saying ‘we don’t want to take this chance,’ and their parents are saying ‘we don’t want to take this chance’ if the college is going to close.”

With declining enrollment has come financial struggles. Denmark Tech was projected to begin operating at a $2 million annual deficit in fall 2019, which would pull between $25,000 and $300,000 from each of the state’s other 15 other technical colleges, according to S.C. Technical College System spokeswoman Kelly Steinhilper.

Denmark Tech’s supporters say those fears may be overblown. For one, enrollment is up. As of October, Denmark Tech has 489 students, a number which could increase in the spring, said Willie Todd, Denmark Tech’s vice president of academic support and student services.

Two, Denmark Tech is still teaching students, paying employees and isn’t in serious debt.

“A lot of mumbling about the school going broke by the end of the fiscal year...none of that materialized,” said Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg.

Denmark Tech could also see federal loans suspended from the school because its student loan default rate exceeded 40 percent — twice the rate of the S.C. technical college average — in 2016, according to newly released numbers from the U.S. Department of Education.

It’s not just a loss of enrollment that has caused Denmark Tech’s financial woes; rather, it’s the state intentionally underfunding the historically black school, the school has argued in a lawsuit.

Although Denmark Tech receives more state money per full-time-equivalent student than any other tech school — Denmark Tech received $4,400 per full-time equivalent student while the average S.C. technical college received $2,469 in 2019-2020 — it doesn’t make up for the lack of local funding, according to the lawsuit and data from the S.C. Technical College System.

Between 2014 and 2018, Bamberg, Barnwell and Allendale Counties — some of the poorest counties in the state — have contributed a total of $38,100 to Denmark Tech, the suit alleges.

In comparison, local governments contributed $59 million to Greenville Technical College in the same time frame, according to the suit.

“The challenge for Denmark Tech, like many HBCUs across the country, is equity and being equitably in state support,” Govan said.

How Denmark is trying to turn it around

Denmark Tech is trying to reverse its fortunes by boosting its science, technology and engineering programs and forming partnerships with major institutions like the Medical University of South Carolina, Hall said.

“We’re consciously seeking people for our STEM program,” Hall said.

Denmark Tech is looking to cultivate these students beginning in high school. Not as prospects, but as Denmark Tech students. Teens who are dually enrolled in high school and Denmark Tech college courses can actually receive a college degree or certificate before a high school diploma, Hall said.

In fact, 23 students did just that at the end of spring semester.

“They graduated with our regular students back in May, and they had their high school graduations about a month later,” Hall said of the 23 students.

Denmark Tech is also branching out to local businesses for partnerships. Earlier this month, Denmark Tech announced a partnership with Savannah River Remediation LLC, which works with the U.S. Department of Energy to clean up the Savannah River, according to a release from the college.

Although Voorhees College — with an enrollment of about 500 students — is located next door, Denmark Tech is still the most affordable way for a person in Bamberg, Barnwell or Allendale counties to stay at home and get a college degree. At Voorhees, the average net price to attend in 2017-2018 was $17,905, while at Denmark Tech it was $11,816, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

That’s why many students will start out at Denmark Tech and then transfer to other schools.

Imani Richardson, a first year student studying criminal justice, intends to do that. The Charleston native decided to save money by attending Denmark Tech to take “core classes” before transferring to S.C. State, an HBCU in Orangeburg, he said.

Denmark is also looking to nearby Georgia — where Augusta is just an hour and a half drive — for students.

Nigel Dempsey, a second year Denmark Tech student studying culinary arts and early childhood development, said he wouldn’t have come to college if Denmark Tech hadn’t recruited students at his Atlanta high school.

“DTC has a lot to offer,” Dempsey said, using a common acronym for Denmark Technical College.

Unlike many other technical colleges, Denmark Tech has on-campus dorms, which helps for recruiting out-of-state students like Dempsey.

“I want this to be run like an actual HBCU,” Dempsey said, adding he wants to see more student activities on campus. “Things are getting better, but they aren’t going as fast as I’d like to see.”

Denmark native and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers, himself a graduate of an HBCU, said Denmark Tech needs more than just more state funding to begin thriving again.

For example, Denmark’s water quality has been ravaged by a decade of city officials dumping an unapproved pesticide in the water, according to a previous article from The State. The water quality drew lawsuits and a visit from Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Between 2012 and early 2019, Bamberg County didn’t even have a hospital.

“How are you going to (increase enrollment) when the water is dirty, there’s no hospital?” said Sellers, a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

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