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Struggling South Carolina State University remains open, but accreditation still on probation

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A decision Thursday to keep the troubled South Carolina State University's accreditation on probation removed an immediate threat of forced closure for the state's only historically black public university.

Acting President Franklin Evans announced that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges decided to keep the university on probation as its newly appointed board seeks to return the 119-year-old school to fiscal solvency.

"We're open for business, and we're here to stay," Evans said at a news conference.

A spokeswoman for the accrediting board confirmed later Thursday that SC State will stay on probation another year.

The commission could have decided to revoke SC State's membership. That would have almost certainly forced the school to close because students would no longer be eligible for federal financial aid, decimating the college's already-shrinking enrollment numbers.

"I'm relieved for the time being — excited but not overexcited. I would've been ecstatic if we had not been on probation at all," said Vernell Brown of Charleston, a 1971 graduate and president of SC State's national alumni association.

She said she hopes the decision encourages students to stay and others to enroll. The association's 35 local chapters nationwide have been challenged to raise $25,000 each, primarily for scholarships, to be collected at next month's convention.

Earlier this month, college officials said they expect 2,100 students to enroll in August, a drop of 1,200 students from a year earlier. But its 2015-16 budget depends on 2,650 students. The new trustees approved providing $1 million in needs-based scholarships in an effort to enroll 550 additional students.

The latest announcement comes a month after the Legislature fired SC State's trustees and replaced them with a temporary, fix-it board appointed by lawmakers, which has met twice.

The new chairman, Charles Way of Charleston, called the decision a first step.

"Thank God we got that step, but it's a long road ahead of us," said Way, a businessman and former state commerce director.

SC State has been on probation since last June because of financial and leadership woes.

The school's debt is expected to reach $23.5 million by month's end. That includes a $6 million state loan SC State was supposed to pay back but can't, as well as $1.5 million the school received as part of a second bailout approved last December.

With the school's unpaid bills climbing, legislators decided drastic action was needed. In February, a House Ways and Means subcommittee proposed temporarily closing the school as a way of erasing debt. The idea didn't have a chance, but the stunner forced legislators to confront the school's problems.

Within weeks, SC State trustees fired embattled President Thomas Elzey, ending his less than two years at the school's helm, even as the trustees were expected to be fired by legislators.

Elzey has said the school's financial woes stem from years of declining enrollment — down from nearly 5,000 in 2007 — coupled with school officials' unwillingness to cut spending.

Contributing to the losses were federal changes since 2009 in eligibility for Pell grants and PLUS loans, which made it harder for students and their parents to qualify. The changes have hit historically black colleges particularly hard.

Gov. Nikki Haley said she's comfortable with the accrediting board's decision.

"They're saying this is a school that has opportunity. This is a school that has enough history we can pull them out, but they want to be cautious enough to say it's not done yet," she said. "We'll get it done."

Also Thursday, the accrediting board maintained a warning on the accreditation of Allen University, a private historically black college in Columbia, for six more months. Probation would be the next sanction level.

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