COLUMBIA - Mary Thornley's pitch to South Carolina lawmakers last week in the lobby of the Statehouse was simple.
Preliminary higher education funding
The House Ways and Means Committee passed a preliminary version of the $7 billion state budget last week. Here is a breakdown of what some state schools received, amounts that could change as the state's budget process continues. Trident Tech's funding was considered as part of a larger pot of money and the school received an additional $5 million for a new aerospace center from the committee.
Total budgets are largely comprised of money raised from tuition, fees, and other sources - not dollars allocated from state coffers.
Total budget: $823.8 million
New state funds: $1.7 million
Student Career Opportunity Program: $1 million
Efficiency study: $794,754
College of Charleston
Total budget: $227.6 million
New state funds: $535,673
Simons Center for the Arts renovation: $300,000
Efficiency study: $235,673
Total budget: $145.2 million
New state funds: $808,387
Mechanical engineering lab and equipment: $700,000
Efficiency study: $108,387
Francis Marion University
Total budget: $60.4 million
New state funds: $643,162
Physician Assistant degree program: $500,000
Efficiency study: $143,162
Medical University of South Carolina
Total budget: $631.9 million
New state funds: $2.7 million
Tele-medicine: $1 million
Institute of Medicine: $400,000
Mobile cancer screening: $600,000
Efficiency study: $705,649
Total budget: $146.5 million
New state funds: $349,963
Efficiency study: $149,128
Efficiency process improvements: $200,835
University of South Carolina
Total budget: $1.1 billion
New state funds: $2.3 million
Fair Funding Initiative: $1 million
Efficiency study: $1.3 million
Source: House Ways and Means Committee
The president of Trident Technical College told legislators that a proposed $79 million aerospace center would be a substantial investment in the future of the region's economy. The 215,000-square-foot space would help train workers for the aeronautical cluster in the region and state, including North Charleston-based Boeing South Carolina and its suppliers and vendors.
The school is seeking $50 million over an extended period. A House budget-writing committee got the ball rolling by allocating $5 million for the new center in next year's budget.
Those initiatives are among the $7 billion in state funding that the House of Representatives is expected to consider in March. The initial spending plan from the House Ways and Means Committee provides more money for public schools, hires more law enforcement officers and pays for the next round of cyber-security measures. It also has leaders at institutions of higher education in the Lowcountry and across the state thankful for what they received, but still considering how to grow and where the money should come from.
As state revenues have declined since the Recession, higher education finds itself fighting for a piece of a smaller pie, in South Carolina and across the country. As talks of merging the Medical University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston have escalated in Columbia, the argument - like all things higher ed in the state - is largely based on the needs of the economy.
That's one advantage of a technical education over a classic four-year liberal arts degree, Thornley said.
"We need both," she said. "But (a liberal arts degree) doesn't lead them directly to a job. We're a fast way to increase the amount of tax income coming into the state of South Carolina. Is that worth investing in?"
Thornley said she hopes to push House members to commit to $17 million over three years for the aerospace initiative.
"This year we're putting our focus on jobs," said Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, who said education initiatives are the key to attracting and maintaining good-paying employment for residents. "Thirty years ago, we were an agricultural state. Now, it's going to be high tech aerospace and manufacturing, not textiles. Those jobs are gone and we don't see them coming back."
In South Carolina, funding for colleges and universities has fallen from $758 million in 2007 to $451 million last year, according to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. Those numbers don't include one-time allocations. Since 1980, South Carolina has reduced its investment in higher education by 67 percent, according to an article on the website of the American Council on Higher Education. If that trend continues, the article says, there will be no funds allocated for higher education in the state in 2031.
Post-recession state budgets look far different than they used to, and lawmakers in South Carolina and elsewhere have often looked skeptically on higher education initiatives. In an era when the state must be fiscally prudent, Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, who chairs the House budget-writing committee, said schools must look for efficiencies.
A total of $4 million was divvied up among the state's public colleges and universities to bring in outside consultants to find ways to save money, he said.
"It's not to punish the higher ed institutions," White said of the consultant studies. But he said that the budget does articulate a message that lawmakers prize programs, like Trident Tech's, that lead to jobs and economic growth.
"We have an infrastructure problem in South Carolina, we've got to train workers to work," he said. "Some of (the schools) appear to be all things to all people and you just can't do it."
The College of Charleston received about $535,000 in new state dollars from the committee for the required efficiency study and an arts center renovation expected to total $35 million.
George Hynd, the College of Charleston's provost for academic affairs, said state dollars have largely declined, with a few notable exceptions. State funding now makes up about 8 percent of the school's total budget, he said. The state has contributed more substantially to the school's science center and other capital projects.
"As we go forward, relying on the state to help out in very special circumstances, that's incredible support that we do need and most gratefully appreciate," Hynd said.
He also said that the economic debate of a liberal arts education versus a more technical degree is not settled. He pointed to a recent Association of American Colleges and Universities study that shows that liberal arts graduates' critical thinking and writing skills served them well. They tended to have higher wages in peak earning years and lower unemployment than those without liberal arts degrees, the study found.
Limehouse said there's no reason the state can't do both. But the College of Charleston is doing well, and technical and professional schools need to catch up, he said.
"This is huge for the Lowcountry," he said. "We're going to become an aeronautics state. We didn't just fund Trident Tech for the heck of it - we have a plan and we're sticking to a plan."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Jeremy Borden can be reached at 843-708-5837 or on Twitter @Jeremy_Borden.