The state's Budget and Control Board could decide this week whether to place a moratorium on new building projects on public college and university campuses as a way to reduce the cost of tuition.
Gov. Mark Sanford is holding a Higher Education Summit on the need to turn around the soaring cost of a college education, at Midlands Technical College in Columbia on Tuesday. The moratorium will be one of the topics discussed, Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said.
That discussion could influence whether the moratorium is included on the agenda of the Budget and Control Board's meeting Wednesday, and how members of that group would define and implement it, Fox said. Four of the five members of the board have said they are open to a discussion on a moratorium.
Several college and university leaders, however, said lack of state support, not costly construction projects, is driving up the cost of a college education.
Fox said reactions to the summit so far have been "passionate and wide."
Sanford, who is in his final months as the state's governor, has tried in the past to revamp the state's higher education system, including proposing that the state create a board of regents to govern its colleges and schools and limit tuition increases to the Higher Education Price Index -- an inflation rate specific to colleges and universities. But, Fox said, he has not been successful in those endeavors. The governor hopes that the summit would "spur quality legislation in the next session," Fox said.
Spokesmen from the state's largest public colleges and universities said representatives from their schools would attend the summit, which is open to the public and will include time for discussion on many aspects of higher education.
The University of South Carolina added a page to its website on the summit, which includes an explanation of issues school officials think contribute to the cost of higher education.
USC spokeswoman Margaret Lamb said the university lost $105 million, or 47 percent, of its state funding in the past two years, which contributed to a 6.9 percent tuition jump for the 2010-11 school year.
State funding for higher education is low in South Carolina. The level at which it funds its universities falls second from the bottom among the 16 Southern states. Only West Virginia contributes less to its colleges, according the Southern Regional Education Board, a group that represents those states.
And tuition at South Carolina's public four-year schools is the highest in the South. While weak state support is one reason why in-state tuition is twice that of neighboring states, it's only part of the answer. Institutions also compete with one another for applicants and prestige, and one way they do that is by improving facilities and amenities for students.
Lamb said that the university hasn't received any money from the state for building projects since the 1999-2000 fiscal year. Most construction projects are paid for with private money, athletics revenue, or county or federal funds, she said.
Representatives from other state schools echoed Lamb's concerns.
At Trident Technical College, President Mary Thornley raised $30 million for a new nursing and science building from Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. If the state puts in place the moratorium, school officials said, they would ask for an exemption so they can proceed with building construction.
The school, which has a waiting list for the nursing program, needs the building. And, Trident Tech leaders said, the state desperately needs more nurses.
Ray Greenberg, president of the Medical University of South Carolina, said the university has some renovation projects under development, and delays in those projects might cause problems in those buildings. He also said a project to renovate research space for microbiology and immunology has a major federal stimulus grant, which could be lost if a building moratorium is put in place.
Spokesmen at the College of Charleston and The Citadel said they don't have any building projects in the works.
State Treasurer Converse Chellis, the only member of the Budget and Control Board opposed to the moratorium, said some building projects are necessary. Approving a moratorium would put those projects at risk, he said.
"I've always looked at each project individually," Chellis said. "One statement doesn't fit all."
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.