When colleges ignored Leatherman, he acted
Columbia -- Call it Hugh Leatherman's revenge.
Leatherman, the powerful Florence County Republican who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, had asked college presidents as recently as June not to raise tuition beyond 7.3 percent.
The senator, whose voice is nearly inaudible in meetings, called it a request. But Leatherman, whose leadership of the Finance Committee gives him a spot on the five-member State Budget and Control Board, makes few actual requests.
Wednesday, when Leatherman got the Budget and Control Board to impose a moratorium on some new building projects, colleges and universities learned that the request was actually a demand.
Gov. Mark Sanford long has wanted to rein in college building projects, asserting that schools were growing haphazardly and inefficiently in a state that could hardly afford such expansion.
But Leatherman, whose support of Francis Marion University in Florence County is so strong that there are facilities there named in his honor, had always served as a brake on Sanford's designs.
So how did this happen?
Several factors combined to open the door to the moratorium.
For starters, two schools -- The Citadel and the College of Charleston -- not only ignored Leatherman's "request," they rubbed it out like a cigarette. The Citadel increased tuition by 13 percent, and the College of Charleston by 14.8 percent. And when Clemson pushed its tuition up by 7.5 percent, officials there made clear that state budget cuts were a reason why.
In a June 11 letter to College of Charleston President George Benson, Leatherman had stressed that he was tired of hearing college officials lay the blame for tuition increases at the feet of legislators.
"I can no longer tolerate the General Assembly being scapegoated as the reason for such unwarranted tuition increases on in-state students when I am well aware of the fact that a number of colleges and universities have increased their tuition and fee revenue more than 2 and 3 times the amount necessary to offset the state's budget cuts," Leatherman wrote.
As he spoke on behalf of the moratorium Wednesday, Leatherman referenced his earlier warning.
"It seems as if colleges and universities didn't pay much attention," he said, adding that he wanted something "a little bit stronger to let them know families are hurting out there."
An analysis by The State found that, from 2002-2003 to 2009-2010, public colleges and universities in South Carolina raised tuition six to 10 times higher than the percentage by which their state funding was reduced during that time period.
Public colleges and universities received $763.6 million in state appropriations and scholarship money in 2009-2010. Those figures were down about 6 percent from the levels of 2002-2003, the first year lottery money was used to pay for scholarships.
Meanwhile, tuition at colleges and universities soared from 2002-2003 to 2009-2010, according to figures compiled from Commission on Higher Education reports.
The state's research universities boosted tuition rates by an average of 63 percent. Four-year comprehensive teaching schools, a group of 10 schools that includes The Citadel and the College of Charleston, boosted average tuition by just under 60 percent.
Two-year regional schools increased tuition by 51 percent, and technical colleges increased rates by an average of 30 percent.
School officials have argued that tuition is a misleading sticker price few students pay, because many arrive on campus with state-funded scholarship assistance.
And they argued that quality has been improved in recent years, a fact underscored by the record number of applications schools continue to receive despite higher tuition rates.
Still, high-profile projects, combined with the tuition increases, left some legislators with the belief that colleges and universities were not reducing costs like other state agencies.
The University of South Carolina's plan to expand its medical education program in Greenville cemented those feelings, even though school officials said that expansion will be paid for with medical school tuition and private money from the Greenville Hospital System.
Medical University of South Carolina President Ray Greenberg had warned that USC's timing was poor, but the university pressed ahead.