By Dr. Michael Mikota, President, Spartanburg Community College
With just shy of $2 billion in economic development investment flowing into Spartanburg, Cherokee and Union counties in the last year and an ever-changing and evolving economy, there must be a serious and dedicated focus on ensuring we are providing an education that is innovative and of un-paralleled quality. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged higher education institutions across the country resulting in the largest two-year decline in undergraduate enrollment in the last 50 years.
At Spartanburg Community College, we’re meeting this challenge head-on.
In May, we utilized federal COVID-19 funding and worked with strategic partners such as OneSpartanburg Inc., Spartanburg Academic Movement and the Bringing Back the Burg Business Recovery Task Force to virtually eliminate tuition for the 2021-2022 academic year — focusing especially on re-engaging individuals who at some point were forced to put their educational pursuits on pause.
As a result, enrollment was up 32% in fall 2021 versus 2019, marking the highest total enrollment in the college’s history with 6,097 students enrolled across our five campuses. To underscore the magnificence of this statistic, it’s important to note the South Carolina Technical College System, made up of 16 technical colleges across the state, saw an 8.3% decline in enrollment this fall while community colleges nationwide experienced a 17.6% decline over the same time period.
Further, SCC saw an unprecedented 66% increase in our students aged 24 and older as well as significant increases in our minority populations.
Our success has not gone without notice. Just one day following the announcement of the success of our free tuition initiative in November, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced he would establish a $17 million scholarship to offer free tuition for the upcoming spring semester at state technical colleges for those looking to go into high-demand fields such as distribution and logistics, health care, computer science and manufacturing.
But simply eliminating the financial barrier to an education is just one piece in the equation. We must remain innovative, relevant and maintain our status as a leader in education in order to foster growth at all facets. In order to do this, we are working to invest in research and development to ensure our students have access to the most up-to-date information and the technology currently being utilized in their prospective fields.
We are also diligently working to strengthen partnerships with the community and K-12 schools specifically by investing in new, innovative positions such as our College Transition Coordinators, who serve as counselors to help high school students in our service area prepare for the next steps in their education and workforce preparation. Through this engagement, we aim to bring the community together and help sustain economic growth by ensuring a well-managed talent pipeline is cultivated and allowed to flourish.
SCC also has a momentous seat at the table when considering the burgeoning opportunities we have in our area for economic development. Presiding over the largest stretch of the I-85 corridor in the Upstate of South Carolina, SCC and our Spark Centers — economic accelerators positioned to help entrepreneurs and businesses launch, build, expand and reorganize — have been a crucial component of driving that growth over the last 14 years.
To date, the Spark Centers have served 128 companies, helped create more than 52,000 jobs generating some $3.5 billion in total wage earnings and, based on their record of performance, projections show they will directly impact the creation of 1,000 jobs annually through the services they provide.
At Spartanburg Community College, with the adaptations we’ve put into place and are continuing to develop, we no longer wish to be considered a “hidden gem.” Instead, we strive to be the shining beacon on the hill that provides the blueprint for educating the workforce of the future and serves as the engine of economic growth for the Upstate.
Dr. Michael Mikota has served as president of Spartanburg Community College since July 2020. A native of Gaffney, Dr. Mikota holds a bachelor’s degree from Wofford College, an MBA from Gardner-Webb University, a Ph.D. from Clemson University, and previously served as a senior analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C.