The S.C. Legislature talks a big game about making the state more business-friendly with tax breaks, incentives and the right to work.
Missing on that list in recent years has been the state’s commitment to superior, accessible higher education.
An analysis by The State newspaper found that only in six states do public four-year colleges charge more than in South Carolina, one of the nation’s poorest states.
And shockingly, only two states contribute less to their colleges than the Palmetto State does.
College officials lament the situation and say they have no choice but to increase tuition and fees. They also have increased enrollment.
But some legislators say colleges just need to tighten their belts. Of course, colleges, like other public agencies, should always be looking for cost efficiencies. There is little question that they could find functions to combine, eliminate or pare down — just as families have to do. There is surely duplication among schools.
But it is more than a stretch to think the gap between South Carolina’s funding and that of other states could be closed simply by economizing.
And if the General Assembly and the governor are to deliver on their promises to bring business here and increase jobs, they will have to work harder to fund colleges adequately.
If they don’t, South Carolina’s students will find other states that offer a better deal.
One thing that could help raise awareness of college needs and instill confidence in the function of the overall system would be for South Carolina to adopt a board of regents system for statewide oversight of colleges and universities. It could serve to remove some of the politics from funding decisions.
At present, the University of South Carolina gets about 40 percent of state money earmarked for four-year colleges. Clemson receives about 24 percent.
The remaining 10 four-year public colleges get to share the scraps.
Gov. Nikki Haley has a good idea to address the problem: Fund schools based on their performance in a number of areas, including student retention, graduation rates and financial health. But a bill to that effect did not get through the General Assembly.
And even if state government were to redistribute higher education dollars according to merit, it wouldn’t altogether solve the problem.
Generally more aid is needed for state-supported colleges and universities. Meanwhile, higher ed growth needs to be curtailed where it isn’t warranted. Projects like the third state medical school in Greenville need to be strictly limited.
If South Carolina is to reduce its high unemployment rate and advance the median income of residents, it must focus more on higher education institutions.
A good place to start is a coherent governance system for higher ed that can make rational, not political, choices.