College of Charleston

The College of Charleston's Porters Lodge, entrance to its Cistern. Robert Behre/Staff/File 

South Carolina's board overseeing the state's network of colleges and universities has approved its first-ever Student Bill of Rights in hopes of making higher education more affordable and keeping the state's institutions in the black.

Commission on Higher Education Chairman Tim Hofferth said it released the new document to start a broader discussion about what's at stake.

The "bill of rights" calls for admitting Palmetto Fellows and LIFE lottery tuition scholarship winners into any of the state's colleges; putting in-state students first in line in the admissions process; and freezing or lowering the cost of attendance, among other steps.

The commission notes families in South Carolina spend a higher percentage of their income on tuition than families in any other state, and its schools are the most expensive in the Southeast (and fifth most costly in the nation). South Carolina students have racked up a large amount of debt, as tuition rose more than 266 percent during the past 30 years, even adjusted for inflation.

Gov. Henry McMaster praised the commission's new bill of rights, which was drafted after conversations with lawmakers and university leaders as well as parents and students at recent town hall meetings across the state.

"We must do what we can to ensure that tuition costs are not unnecessarily prohibitive,” he said. “I applaud the Commission on Higher Education’s efforts in bringing these concerns to light and beginning the necessary discussion about how to best address them."

But presidents of the state's colleges and universities wrote Hofferth on April 27 asking the commissioners to pause any action on the Student Bill of Rights.

"We are not against the Bill of Rights per se, but we would like the opportunity for conversation and suggestions," the letter said. "For instance, how can any Student Bill of Rights not include the need for sustainable state funding?"

An affordability problem

Some parents at the town halls cried as they told how they could not afford to pay for their child's college, said Jeff Schilz, the commission's director.

"We can't continue to increase the cost on the families and expect them to be able to send their kids to college," he said. "And if you've got fewer people going, you've got a sustainability problem (with colleges) and a paying-the-bills problem. That's the fear and the state needs to be out in front of that."

Now that this year's legislative session is ending, Schilz said it's a good time for informal discussions to start among lawmakers, the commission, college officials, parents, students and business leaders.

"There has to be a recognition that what we're doing is not sustainable long term," he said, "either from a family affordability standpoint or from a system sustainable budgetary standpoint. If the costs keep rising at the rate they're going, if expenditures keep rising, and fewer students enroll, it's going to be more and more difficult for schools to balance budgets."

South Carolina State University already has grappled with financial problems, as is Denmark Technical College.

A new bill emerges

There are signs the conversation already is stirring. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, outlined a new plan Tuesday to stabilize tuition rates and make college more affordable for more students.

The biggest piece hinges on whether the U.S. Supreme Court rules that businesses must collect sales taxes on internet sales. Sheheen proposed placing all that additional money toward public colleges, based on their in-state student enrollment. Sheheen said that would “encourage in-state student education and discourage out-of-state reliance.”

He proposed that colleges would only get that new income if they agreed to freeze their tuition rates for one year and limit future increases to inflation, capped at 2.75 percent. Other pieces of his bill — which he hopes the Senate education panel will start discussing later this year — would provide money for maintenance and gradually increase scholarships for financial need.

Public colleges currently get about 10 percent of their funding from state taxes: The Legislature slashed state funding to colleges during the Great Recession and never restored it. That prompted some to raise tuition and enroll more out-of-state students, who pay more.

“The burden has shifted to students and parents,” Sheheen said. “Tuition is too high. Kids are coming out of college with $70,000-plus in debt or they’re not going to college.” He noted one of his son’s close friends is graduating $80,000 in debt, and “that’s destructive.”

Wes Hickman, spokesman for the University of South Carolina, said Sheheen's bipartisan bill, if ultimately approved, could be the most significant advance in higher education in more than a decade.

Wanted: a broader discussion

For more than a year, the Higher Education Commission has been issuing dire warnings that South Carolina’s 12 four-year colleges could see revenue shortfalls of up to $500 million by 2026, a crisis comparable to the state's pension system. But many colleges say that forecast is exaggerated and they are in good shape.

Schilz said any reforms ultimately will have to come through the Legislature, so the commission is trying to raise an issue that has flown under the radar somewhat.

"We've got to keep building this into a broader discussion," he said. "We're not necessarily at that full blown crisis point yet, but some of the families in this state certainly would feel that we are."

Schilz noted the rights aren't specific policy proposals, because different institutions do things differently.

"We've got six to seven different policy issues that the state hasn't really addressed in a long time," he said. "In fairness to the schools, they haven't gotten that direction on what the state wants from its public higher education system in a while."

College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell said the college is reviewing the Student Bill of Rights and looks forward to talking with the commission on improving access to higher education in South Carolina.

"All the colleges and universities are attempting to contain tuition costs and expand access," McConnell said. "CHE’s proposed one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Price controls and the micromanagement of the compositions of our student bodies are problematic given the unique locations and identities of the state’s public colleges and universities. In short, we need greater innovation, not more regulation.”

Mark Land, Clemson's vice president of university relations, said Clemson has tried to control its costs and offer students more financial aid. About 66 percent of its students come from in-state.

“As a result, more than half of Clemson’s undergraduate students graduate with no debt and in-state students pay, on average, about 36 percent of the posted price for tuition and fees," he said.

But Land also said the Student Bill of Rights continues the commission's pattern of proposing "arbitrary rules, guidelines and initiatives without a full understanding of the actual outcomes associated with those decisions."

While many agree on the larger goals — more affordability and stability — the debate seems certain to rage on about the best way to get there.

Note: This story has been updated to include a more precise figure for Clemson's in-state student population.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.