USC campus (copy)

Students at The University of South Carolina, in Columbia mill around the Russell House student union on November 15, 2017. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

Students attend college to learn and to become more marketable in the search for a career, not for the brand new buildings or the superfluous bells and whistles.

They benefit from highly trained, motivated professors and small class sizes, not from cutting edge classroom technology and new carpet.

They need affordable tuition so that any loans can be paid back in a reasonable amount of time even at relatively low starting salaries.

But leaders at too many of South Carolina’s colleges and universities have long had their priorities misplaced.

Collectively, the state’s 38 public colleges have invested massive amounts of tuition dollars and public funds over the past several years in opulent new amenities while placing an ever-increasing financial burden on students and their families.

Not surprisingly, South Carolina students pay the highest in-state public college tuition in the Southeast.

The University of South Carolina, for example, hopes to spend nearly half a billion dollars to renovate much of the south side of its Columbia campus. Tuition at the school is up by 43 percent over the past decade.

Clemson has asked to spend more than $12 million on a new tennis facility. Tuition is up 44 percent over the past decade.

Coastal Carolina University has proposed spending at least $38 million to expand its football stadium. Tuition is up 33 percent over the past decade.

Lander University has floated spending more than $15 million on student housing, with an enrollment of just over 2,000 students. Tuition increased by 22 percent since the 2008-09 academic year.

These projects are not inherently wasteful, but they represent concerning outlays of money at a time in which state watchdogs with the Commission on Higher Education say several of South Carolina’s public colleges are at risk of financial collapse.

The state’s schools have long relied on increasing enrollment and periodic tuition hikes to pay for operating costs while borrowing millions of dollars for new buildings, sports facilities and other amenities.

That strategy works fine as long as schools can expand enrollment and increase tuition indefinitely, but that’s obviously not a reasonable expectation.

On the contrary, enrollment is mostly flat over the past decade or so, and tuition is so high that further increases could cause enrollment to start decreasing.

Needless to say, average salaries in South Carolina have not increased by 22 to 44 percent over the past decade, making college an increasingly challenging financial proposition for many of the state’s families.

If the pattern continues, some schools might have to close their doors, according to CHE predictions. Others could need costly state bailouts to stay afloat.

Not only have college leaders ignored those warnings, but they want to leverage an expected state budget surplus to go even deeper into debt.

State Senate budget director Mike Shealy told a gathering of university leaders last week that South Carolina could potentially leverage a projected $125 million budget surplus into $1.25 billion in borrowed money for college capital improvements, building renovations and other expensive projects.

That would be a catastrophic decision.

Rather than going deeper into debt, South Carolina colleges must develop long-term financial plans that create real value — not just flashy new facilities — for students while paying down debt and budgeting for sustainable enrollment and tuition numbers.

After all, a new, state-of-the-art dorm complex is pretty worthless if only a few South Carolina students can still afford to go to school.