If higher education continues on a path of exploding costs and declining student enrollment, some South Carolina public colleges and universities will be forced to close shop, officials from the state Commission on Higher Education warned.
"We’ve had costs increase year over year at mind-bending speeds where there’s no other comparison in our state," said Tim Hofferth, chairman of the Commission on Higher Education board, at a town hall meeting Thursday.
"We can’t stay on that path for long without a crash."
Hofferth was joined by the agency's executive director, Jeff Schilz, at the Lowcountry Graduate Center in North Charleston for their such third town hall as they try to raise awareness across the state about college affordability and accessibility. The forum convened dozens of college administrators from across the Lowcountry, educators, parents and at least one current college student.
The numbers are daunting. The cost of a college education has risen 1,120 percent nationwide since 1978, four times faster than the consumer price index, according to Bloomberg. Americans owe $1.4 trillion in student loans. Meanwhile, undergraduate college enrollment is stagnating.
The picture is equally as ugly in the Palmetto State, where the cost of attendance at four-year public institutions is the highest in the Southeast. South Carolina is tied with Vermont for highest in the nation in tuition as a percent of average household income, and South Carolina ranks 8th in the country in the average amount of debt owed by students.
And that student debt burden keeps getting worse. Between 2008 and 2016, the average amount of debt owed by students graduating from public four-year colleges in the state has nearly doubled, from $16,570 to $30,328.
That may be partly why fewer South Carolina students are pursuing higher education. Over the last decade, the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in the state's public colleges and universities has dropped from 81 to 67 percent.
"This is not a sustainable model when you project out even five or 10 years," Schilz said. "It's going to cost people in the long run."
Research institutions, like Clemson University and University of South Carolina, will survive these trends as out-of-state enrollment at both continues to climb, Hofferth said. But so-called "comprehensive colleges" are bearing the brunt of these worrisome trends and face a rockier future.
"Based on these trends...there's no question there will be additional institutional failure," Hofferth said. "We've got a number of institutions that are at the precipice looking over the edge."
"There is a fire in the theater," he added, "And we don’t have to wait for another billion dollar shoe to drop to say, 'Oops! Let's address it.'"