Higher education hits lean times

Students at the College of Charleston change classes Friday. The school is looking at a $17.3 million state funding shortfall.

South Carolina slashed funding to public colleges and universities by more than 25 percent this year — likely the largest decline in the nation.

Last month, a group of presidents traveled to the Statehouse to plead their case. The Senate will continue budget deliberations Tuesday when the Legislature reconvenes.

After years of declining funding, students are beginning to doubt the state's commitment to higher education, said Seaton Brown, a College of Charleston senior and student body president. "They're driving away all their customers," he said. "If students can't afford school here, they'll go to other states."

A February survey gave South Carolina the distinction of the largest drop for state funding of higher education from fiscal year 2008 to 2009 at 17.7 percent, according to the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University.

That survey did not include two successive cuts that since have raised the total to 26.4 percent. This year, the funding free fall has shortchanged higher education $181 million in state money.

As a result, belt-tightening at campuses statewide has included furloughs, closure of programs, restructuring of departments and a spattering of layoffs.

"Higher education in South Carolina is at the precipice," College of Charleston President George Benson said during the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's annual economic forecast in March. "We must change."

After an initial 3 percent cut, the $758 million budget in fiscal 2008 fell to $577 this year, according to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. Colleges and universities are operating at 1995 funding levels, not adjusted for inflation.

State support needed for colleges and universities to fulfill their mission is more than double the current funding level at $1.2 billion, according to the commission's calculations.

"These kinds of cuts are very difficult to regroup from," said John Kelly, Clemson University vice president of Public Service and Agriculture. "Once you lose experienced people, they're gone. You don't have experienced people in a pipeline."

Mary Thornley, president of Trident Technical College, said recessions are tough on higher education since enrollment increases while state funding decreases.

Our neighboring states get it right, Garrison Walters, executive director of the commission, told legislators in March. Walters pointed out that South Carolina's average per student appropriations was about $289. Meanwhile, Kentucky invested $728 per student, Georgia gave $836 and North Carolina allotted $2,219.

"The budget cuts we've absorbed during the current economic crisis are just the latest round of a long-running decline in state support," Benson said.

This year's steep drop comes on the heels of steady annual reductions. In 1999, South Carolina dedicated 16.4 percent of state revenues to higher education. Nearly ten years later, in 2008, the state allotted 13.7 percent of its revenues.

Stimulus limbo

College and university number crunchers are running through two scenarios: one with stimulus money and one without.

Legislators and Gov. Mark Sanford remain at loggerheads over nearly $700 million in federal stimulus money. More than 80 percent of the money that Sanford so far has refused to accept must be spent on education, according to federal law, with colleges and universities receiving about $119 million.

Sanford said he would accept the funding only if the Legislature used an equal amount of state dollars to pay down debt. But legislators claim it is impossible to spend that amount on debt and follow the guidelines.

Higher education officials are reluctant to use the money — if it comes through — on recurring expenses since the funding will last only two years.

Walters, of the Commission on Higher Education, pointed out that the stimulus would represent only 66 percent of funding lost since 2008.

At Clemson, Public Service would stand to lose $2.7 million, which could translate into about 40 jobs, closure of some extension offices and research and education centers. Clemson is one of 70 land-grant universities in the nation with the mission to provide expert resources tailored to each state's needs.

Ray Greenberg, president of the Medical University of South Carolina, said, "The greatest irony of all is that our allocation of these funds could be redirected to other states who are already better off."

Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Higher Education Finance Budget Subcommittee said, "Why would we in South Carolina pay for the education of those in Massachusetts."

Looking to the future

How state funding levels will affect next year's tuition remains to be determined. Universities usually set tuition and fees in June, after the state budget is approved in May.

Thornley at Trident said that state funding once provided more than half of the college's budget. "Today, it's less than a quarter of our budget, which means students are bearing more of the financial burden in tuition costs."

MUSC has been hit hardest by the continuing decline in state funding. "If the playing field is allowed to get so uneven, South Carolina could be placed at an insurmountable disadvantage," Greenberg said.

Tuition rates have risen faster in the state, making college less affordable, he said. "It also makes it difficult to compete for the best faculty, many of whom have more generous offers at institutions and other states."

Footing already has been lost. Kelly said the lead South Carolina had in research to protect natural resources and developing biofuel systems has evaporated. After Clemson's Public Service budget was cut by $11.8 million this year, positions set to be filled were frozen, he said.

The link between higher education and economic health is documented. For each dollar the state spends on higher education, $11.20 is added to the economy, according to the Division of Research at the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.

"We are part of the solution to the economic slump," Trident Tech's Thornley said. "We need adequate funding to be able to meet the demand."