South Carolina college students graduate with the highest loan debts in the South, averaging more than $30,000, and one factor driving students' need to borrow is all the debt taken on by colleges they attend.

At the Palmetto State's largest public colleges and universities, the amount of money students contribute toward paying off institutional debt now accounts for 8 to 10 percent of tuition bills, according to the state's Commission on Higher Education. At graduation, most students leave with long-term debt, and some of the money they borrowed was used to pay down their college's long-term debt.

A 2010 Post and Courier analysis laid out the connection between tuition increases and soaring borrowing costs for new facilities at South Carolina colleges, and the state responded with a moratorium on new building projects at four-year schools that raised tuition by more than 7 percent. At the time, College of Charleston — where debt had increased tenfold over a decade — had proposed a 14.8 percent tuition increase but scaled it back after the state's threat.

This year, in contrast, state lawmakers passed a budget proviso that would reduce oversight of higher education building projects.

Meanwhile, debt at the state's public universities has kept on climbing, particularly at fast-growing institutions such as Coastal Carolina University.

"Well, nothing’s changed," said Tim Hofferth, chairman of the Commission on Higher Education. "We still have the rising costs and skyrocketing student debt, except it’s compounded."

Just a decade ago, Coastal Carolina's total debt was $43.6 million. Last year the growing school near Myrtle Beach carried $239.5 million in debt, equal to $24,429 per student, according to its annual financial report. Like a mortgage, that debt won't be paid off all at once, but students are making regular payments through their tuition and required fees.

"Coastal Carolina University’s debt levels are in response to a growing student body of approximately 8,000 students in 2007 to over 10,000 in 2016," said Jane Johansson, the university's chief financial officer and vice president of finance and administration. "To attract students, investment is needed in academic buildings and housing/dining facilities to accommodate the growth."

Paying down the school's debts cost every full-time Coastal Carolina student $890 during the past academic year, accounting for just over 8 percent of the in-state tuition and fees, according to the Commission on Higher Education. Johansson said the student debt fee decreased by 15 percent since 2013, which is also the year the university's total debt load peaked.

At University of South Carolina, institutional debt more than doubled over the past decade, as was also the case at College of Charleston.

"The College of Charleston works hard to limit increases in any variables that will result in overall tuition increases, and that includes required annual debt service," said Paul Patrick, vice president of administration and planning. "However, reality requires us to balance increases in debt service with the demands of our students."

Most of College of Charleston's current debt load comes from a decade-long borrowing and building spree that began around 2000, when the college had just $19.4 million in debt. That grew to $209 million by 2010 as the college built new student housing, the $45 million TD Arena, a new science center and more. As of 2016, College of Charleston carried $225 million in debt, with the latest rise financing a renovation of the Rita Hollings Science Center.

"While our campus is renowned for its beauty, some of our academic buildings are in need of significant renovations to meet the learning and research needs of our students and faculty," Patrick said.

At Clemson University, debt more than tripled over the past decade, and $1,414 from each in-state student's tuition and fees went toward paying it down last year.

In 2000, the year some of this fall's Clemson freshmen were born, in-state tuition at Clemson was $3,590 a year. Incoming students can expect to pay more than $5,600 by the time they graduate just to service the university's debt.

South Carolina's public colleges and universities are quick to point out that state funding for higher education has dropped significantly, even as the number of enrolled students has climbed. That has also created pressure to raise tuition.

"It’s true that institutional debt has gone up at colleges and universities across the state, and this is a direct result of policymakers ignoring higher education infrastructure needs for nearly two decades — much as they did with roads," said Jeff Stensland, USC director of public relations.

According to the Commission on Higher Education, the state's general appropriations for higher education have plunged by 35 percent over the past decade and are now down to about what the state was spending in the late 1980s. Enrollment has climbed by 88 percent since that time.

Stensland said the state used to do more to help pay for higher education infrastructure through regular bond bills, but now "institutions are forced to do it themselves, and that’s why institutional debt has increased."

Last year, the Commission on Higher Education decided to give more scrutiny to debt-financed college building projects that are not central to academics — stadiums and athletic facilities, for example. According to Hofferth, the 50-year-old commission charged with approving higher education capital projects had never turned one down before. 

In late 2016, the CHE said no to a football stadium proposed by Coastal Carolina and a $12.5 million tennis center proposed by Clemson, Hofferth said. A few months later, the Legislature passed a budget proviso stripping the CHE of most of its oversight authority for capital projects.

"We caught all kinds of heat for turning down Coastal Carolina’s football stadium," Hofferth said.

Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed the budget proviso stripping the CHE of its oversight role, but lawmakers could override that veto in January.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com