A list of more than 100 recommendations to further higher education hit the desks of state legislators Thursday. The recommendations range from easing transitions for adults into higher education, to compulsory high school attendance until age 18 or graduation.
The comprehensive report is the work of the Higher Education Study Committee, which was formed by the General Assembly in 2007 to create a multi-year action plan for higher education.
The plan has a six-year time frame, from 2009-15, and is based on four goals: make South Carolina one of the most educated states; increase research and innovation; improve workforce training; and increase state funding for colleges and universities. The Legislature funded the committee with $150,000.
"Most people realize we can do better," said study committee Chairman Daniel Ravenel of Charleston. "We are lagging behind North Carolina and Georgia. In life expectancy, average income, we're behind our neighbors. Why? We do not feel education is worth spending time and money on."
South Carolina pays $5,838 for each full-time time student compared to the national average of $6,773, the study reported. In the past decade, the state has ranked 50th in increased support to higher education, the committee said.
Members gathered suggestions from public hearings and online, and the need for a systematic approach to higher education became clear. "It's easy for institutions to think of their own needs," Ravenel said, but a broader perspective could reduce duplication and better address the needs of the entire state.
College of Charleston President George Benson said he's encouraged to see a clear course laid out. "Unfortunately, our state historically has under-funded higher education, and achieving some of these goals would require a renewed commitment on the part of the General Assembly," he said.
In the three years since the committee formed, the Legislature has cut more than 25 percent across the board during the current fiscal year, slashing into public funding for higher education.
This fiscal year, The Citadel lost $3.6 million in state appropriations of its $13.5 million budget, the College of Charleston lost $8.8 million of its nearly $197 million budget, and Medical University of South Carolina lost $22.5 million of its $545 million budget.
Those cuts came on the heels of a 17.7 percent reduction in state funds from 2007-08 to 2008-09. That sharp reduction earned South Carolina the distinction of having the greatest loss in state money by the Centers for the Study of Education Policy. The second worst state, Alabama, had a 10.5 percent loss in the same period.
MUSC President Ray Greenberg said the plan could not have come at a more critical time. "Now, as we face unprecedented financial challenges, there is a great temptation to scale back on the public investment in higher education," Greenberg said. "If we do so, we will be penny-wise and pound foolish. South Carolina has the potential for greatness. This plan sees that potential and gives us a road map to get there."
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said he agrees with the plan's thrust for economic development, but he takes issue with the assertion that higher education in South Carolina is expensive.
"If you make good grades and research scholarships, you can go through the whole system really reasonably," Limehouse said.
The next phase of the action plan - pushing for legislation and regulations to enact the recommendations - falls into the hands of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, Ravenel said.