Online-Learning Veteran Leads U. of South Carolina's Newest College

U. of South Carolina

Susan A. Elkins
April 08, 2013

Susan A. Elkins is leading the University of South Carolina's new online college, but she isn't spending all her time behind a computer. In her first three weeks as chancellor of the university's Palmetto College, Ms. Elkins spent a day at the State House, met with the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, and visited all eight University of South Carolina campuses.

"It's great to be here in Columbia at that main campus, but what really drives me is the opportunity to work statewide and reach out to the communities," Ms. Elkins says.

Ms. Elkins, 56, came to South Carolina after spending 22 years at Tennessee Technological University. She spent the first decade of her career there trying to find new ways to reach the one-third of Tennessee's population who live in rural areas, many of them far from the kinds of educational opportunities that are offered at institutions like Tennessee Tech.

The process involved constantly reaching out to small community colleges and elementary and secondary schools, Ms. Elkins says. The students she found were eager to go to college, but the circumstances of their lives meant they couldn't relocate, no matter how badly they wanted a degree. They had jobs, and families to support; simply moving was not an option, she says.

The following decade, technology began catching up to Ms. Elkins's hopes for those students. Tennessee Tech started offering online courses and joined a statewide effort with five other universities, 13 community colleges, and 27 tech centers to offer an online-degree program. Ms. Elkins was the leader of Tennessee Tech's involvement in the collaboration.

"The initiative was very successful," Ms. Elkins says. "We reached out to a lot of students who started school years ago, but life just got in the way, and they couldn't finish their degrees."

When the University of South Carolina approached her about becoming the chancellor of Palmetto College, Ms. Elkins says, it seemed like the "next step."

Palmetto College is the first program of its kind in South Carolina. The college offers bachelor's-degree-completion programs for students who hold at least 60 credits from one of South Carolina's regional campuses or technical colleges, or an out-of-state college. Classes will begin this fall, with courses being offered in business, criminal justice, education, and nursing. The classes will be taught by University of South Carolina professors.

Ms. Elkins, who had been a lifelong Tennessean, has noticed that South Carolina is a little bit warmer and smaller than Tennessee, but it has a key similarity.

Many of the poorer rural counties she has visited, she says, look very much like the counties she worked with for more than two decades back in Tennessee. They are counties with small towns of a few thousand people who are trying to get by on low-wage jobs, with many of them commuting out of town to make a meager living.

"It's just very attractive to me, helping improve economic impact in the state, as well as the quality of life for people in South Carolina," Ms. Elkins says. "That's what it's really about, earning a degree, regardless of where they live in the state."