Higher-ed reform takes time S.C. addressing funding, evaluations

Nikki Haley's spokesman Rob Godfrey said the governor "is fighting for accountability-based funding for South Carolina's public colleges and universities and believes that these institutions should be funded based upon their performance."

Brett Flashnick

Changing the way South Carolina pays for and evaluates its public colleges and universities isn’t going to be easy or fast.

Gov. Nikki Haley began meeting with presidents of the state’s higher education institutions soon after she took office in 2011 to begin planning for a new way to do business. That took about two years. Now the General Assembly is considering the plan, but as the session winds down, it remains unclear if the measure will pass this year. Even if it does, it would take five years to put in place. And at least two legislators doubt that any plan short of forming a central governing Board of Regents is doomed to be ineffective.

So marks the latest effort on higher education reform in South Carolina, which, unlike many states, has no central governing board. Haley is pushing to fund colleges on how well they perform, a plan known as “accountability-based funding.” Under her plan, those that perform well will be granted more flexibility in how they spend state money.

Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said the governor “is fighting for accountability-based funding for South Carolina’s public colleges and universities and believes that these institutions should be funded based upon their performance.” But, he added, that might not happen quickly. “Change moves slow in the Legislature,” he said.

The Legislature considered a bill this year that, if passed, would mark the first step in a five-year transition process. Bill H-3518 passed in the House. The Senate version of the bill, S-266, is now being considered.

Legislators and higher education leaders said the schools have been operating a certain way for many years. Changes simply can’t happen quickly.

Haley has said she thinks public colleges and universities should be funded based on whether they meet goals on graduation rates, access and affordability, educational quality, and their impact on economic development, including how well they place graduates in jobs. In exchange for meeting goals, she has said she would push to free them from some of the cumbersome bureaucratic requirements for how they operate and spend state money.

These criteria are included in the bills.

Fred Carter, president of Francis Marion University, said coming up with a plan for higher education reform was challenging because all of the state’s colleges and universities have different missions. Haley understood that all schools couldn’t be judged by the same criteria, and that coming up with a fair plan would take time, he said.

If the Senate passes the bill this year, the state’s Commission on Higher Education would then begin meeting with school leaders to develop specific, measurable criteria, Carter said.

“We’re moving very complex, knowledge-based organizations along in the process. It’s not easy to turn universities on a dime,” Carter said. “I think that if (Haley) could complete the bulk of this in her first term, it would be an achievement.”

Brian McGee, chief of staff for College of Charleston President George Benson, said the process is creating “goals that are respectful to individual institutions.”

But state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, said he’s deeply concerned about the state’s higher education system, which he thinks is “absolutely adrift right now.”

Merrill, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and a former member of that group’s subcommittee on higher education, said he’s watched many efforts to reform the higher education system fail over the years. He attributes that to the lack of a central governing agency, without which he thinks successful reform is unlikely. “Getting your arms around the higher education establishment and its many tentacles is just too daunting,” he said. “It shows the influence of higher education alumni and their lobbyists.”

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, and chairman of the House subcommittee on higher education, said he’s not sure what, if anything, will happen this year. “Bills have been introduced, but nothing has progressed,” he said. The higher education funding system has been in place for a hundred years, he said, and it might take some time to change it.

And he hopes the change eventually will include a Board of Regents. “We need an overall plan, not a hodgepodge plan,” he said. But, Limehouse added, “the conversation is still going.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.