After years of increases that outstripped inflation, the University of South Carolina announced last week it was increasing tuition for in-state students by just 0.6 percent — the smallest increase since 1998. At Francis Marion, tuition won’t go up at all. And across the state, from the College of Charleston to Clemson, tuition is rising by 1 percent or less in the fall.
This happy news for S.C. students and their parents is the result of the Legislature finally acknowledging that South Carolina has had some of the biggest tuition increases in the nation at least in part because the Legislature has slashed its support for higher education so drastically.
This year, lawmakers increased college funding by $36 million and limited how much tuition could be increased.
We’ve never funded our colleges as much as some other states. North Carolina, for example, provides more than three times as much money per student as we do.
Things got worse after lawmakers created lottery scholarships and treated them as an excuse to cut funding even more. Then the recession hit, and funding plummeted further.
In 1999, the Legislature spent 15 percent of the state general fund budget on higher education. By 2013, that had dropped to 7 percent, where it remains. So, colleges had to cut spending or raise tuition, or both.
In 2017, the average S.C. college tuition of $11,195 for in-state students was $4,300 more than the average cost across the South. That’s not so surprising when you realize that the other Southern states spent on average $3,300 more per student that year.
The Legislature’s failure to fully fund higher education has resulted in higher tuition costs in South Carolina. We hope lawmakers’ increased support this year signals a permanent recognition of that fact.
But it’s also important to acknowledge that insufficient state funding doesn’t account for all of the difference. That other side of the equation needs to be addressed.
There is duplication and redundancy, wasteful spending on lavish facilities and frivolous amenities, and a systemic overlap in our universities and colleges, largely because we don’t have an actual higher education system.
Instead, we have a collection of fiefdoms, each operated by its own board of trustees, whose members are elected by the Legislature and who form the foundation of those individual fiefdoms’ power bases in the Legislature.
We have a Commission on Higher Education, which should hold the power to oversee South Carolina’s 33 institutions of higher education. It hasn’t typically worked out that way.
State law says the CHE must approve new programs and can reduce funding for colleges or close them entirely, for example. But when the agency has tried to exercise its authority, the Legislature has overruled it or scaled back its power.
So while the CHE can annoy schools — and it certainly has in the past — it can’t realistically set a vision for higher education in our state. It can’t create a system of higher education.
Our students will continue to pay too much for college until we have a state body — ideally a board of regents or a more empowered CHE — with the mandate and authority to transform our confederation of competing and duplicative colleges and universities into an actual system of higher education, which can make the best use of the limited resources the Legislature provides it.