Despite challenges, Coker College held on to its roots in the liberal arts.
Founded in 1908, Coker University is an independent liberal arts college located in Hartsville. Named for Major James Lide Coker, the college is the product of his philanthropic efforts to improve the state’s educational opportunities. This work began with the establishment of Welsh Neck High School in 1894. In 1907 the creation of a statewide public high school system alleviated the need for private high schools, and Coker embraced the opportunity to convert the high school into a women’s college. Thus, Coker College was born. The burgeoning business enterprises of the Coker family provided funds to support the new institution. Major Coker donated $25,000 for the construction of an administration building in 1909; $150,000 for the college’s endowment in 1910; and $65,000 for a one-hundred-bed dormitory in 1914.
At the start of the twentieth century, the college maintained its Christian nondenominational roots. The earliest catalog noted that “no attempt whatsoever to influence pupils in their denominational preferences will be made or tolerated.” Major Coker believed that education, rather than religion, was the primary purpose of higher education. In 1944 the college broke its ties to the Baptist Association and reorganized its self-perpetuating board.
After Coker’s death in 1918, his heirs ensured his legacy. Successive generations funded construction, including the library (1962), the student center (1971), and a performing arts center (1997). Kalmia Gardens, a thirty-acre nature preserve, was donated to the college in 1965. Perhaps most telling of the family’s contributions to the college is that prior to 1969 all college facilities were built without debt.
Despite challenges, Coker College held on to its roots in the liberal arts. In 1929 a $400,000 endowment campaign was wiped away by the stock market crash. Enrollment wavered; the board authorized new course offerings to include business administration and “areas of vocational and professional demand.” In the years following World War II, returning veterans enrolled. Officially, the college became coeducational in 1969, and the first men enrolled in 1970. Under a mandate by the Civil Rights Act, the college opened its doors to minorities, and the first African American female enrolled in 1968. The 1960s also witnessed increasing competition from Winthrop College in Rock Hill. In order to remain competitive, Coker instituted several programs designed to broaden the college’s reach and income. The Military Degree Completion Program was instituted in 1970 to assist National Guardsmen and, later, soldiers stationed at Fort Jackson with college course work. The college also agreed to house the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, thus utilizing college facilities and serving statewide needs.
In 2000 Coker’s on-campus enrollment of more than four hundred was drawn by its solid reputation, as noted by U.S. News & World Report and Barron’s college reviews. Such distinctions were gleaned from Coker’s “round table” teaching style, as most classes were taught around large tables, thus fostering classroom dialogue. Many classes had fewer than twelve students, and eighty-five percent of the faculty held the highest degrees in their fields. The student population was seventy percent female and approximately twenty percent African American.
In the fall of 2018, the Coker College Board of Trustees voted unanimously to change the institution’s name to Coker University, effective July 1, 2019.
Simpson, Robert R. A Century of Education: Welsh Neck High School and Coker College. Hartsville, S.C.: Coker College Press, 1994.