Summit Generates Much Reaction, Little Agreement

Kevin Dietrich, The Nerve

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The line was drawn early and often during Tuesday’s higher education summit in West Columbia.

With more than 400 individuals on hand, including legislators, higher education officials, community leaders, college students and parents, debate seethed for more than two hours regarding higher education in South Carolina, focusing particularly on rising tuition rates that threaten to put college out of reach of some Palmetto State families.

“It is simply unsustainable to turn to tuition and student fees to fund the rising cost of college,” said Michael Poliakoff, policy director of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “You can’t balance budgets on the backs of students. The solution is to do more with less.”

South Carolina is losing ground to neighboring states by shortchanging higher education, which will cost the state dearly in the long run, said Garrison Walters, executive director of the state’s Commission on Higher Education.

“North Carolina and Georgia both invest far more in higher education and get far more in return,” he said.

Gov. Mark Sanford called the summit and panel discussion, held at Midlands Technical College’s Airport campus, to begin a statewide discussion on such topics as perception and reality regarding higher education, student body composition and college affordability.

“What this was was the kickoff to an awfully important discussion for a lot of students and families in South Carolina,” he said. “We’ve got to come up with some solutions to rising costs beyond raising tuition and fees or we’re going to end up pricing college beyond the reach of many South Carolina families.”

There was much that was debated during Tuesday’s gathering, including how much money the state allocates toward higher education.

Some, including many higher ed officials, claim that funding has dropped sharply in recent years. Others stated that while direct appropriations may have declined, that fact alone doesn’t give a complete picture because it excludes scholarship money awarded to students from lottery revenues.

Also, federal stimulus money has helped offset much of the cutbacks to higher ed.

What is indisputable is that tuition at South Carolina institutions of higher education has risen sharply in recent years.

Between 1999 and 2008, in-state tuition at South Carolina’s research universities –
USC, Clemson and MUSC – rose an average of 166.5 percent, according to information provided by the S.C. Department of Commerce.

North Carolina was next highest in the Southeast, with an increase of 125.7 percent during the same period, while Georgia came in with a jump of 100.9 percent.

At South Carolina’s comprehensive colleges, which includes schools such as Winthrop, The Citadel and College of Charleston, tuition for in-state students increased 138.1 percent during the period from 1999-2008, again the highest rate in the Southeast.

North Carolina came in second at 109.8 percent while Georgia saw its in-state tuition increase 78.8 percent.

And this year alone, tuition jumped nearly 15 percent at the College of Charleston, 13 percent at The Citadel, 9 percent at MUSC, 7.5 percent at Clemson University and 6.9 percent at the University of South Carolina.

At least one legislator believes part of the problem lies with a lack of accountability on the part of the state’s universities and colleges.

Panel member Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, has pushed for state schools to put their public spending online because he believes public institutions in South Carolina “fight tooth and nail” to prevent the state’s citizens from knowing how they spend tax dollars.

Pricey capital projects, which have continued despite the current economic downturn, have also raised eyebrows around the state. Particularly noteworthy has been the expenditure of tens of millions in state dollars by USC for Innovista, which sits incomplete and largely vacant several years after inception.

If nothing else, the summit showed South Carolina has a long way to go toward truly understanding what it will take to rein in the rising costs associated with higher education.

“This conference has underscored the incredible complexity involved with the issues at hand,” said Francis Marion President Fred Carter.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022