The state Commission on Higher Education last year barely escaped a sneaky legislative effort to undercut its authority, as Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed a budget proviso that would have stripped the CHE of its ability to vet major college building projects.
And CHE appeared to have avoided that ill-considered plan again last week, as the House of Representatives sustained the governor’s veto.
That vote, however, was taken at the recommendation of Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, who apparently wants to deal with the CHE more comprehensively in a stand-alone bill this session. Ominously, Mr. White, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, supported last year’s budget proviso.
Still, a stand-alone bill has the benefit of being a more forthright way for the CHE’s critics to address their objections to the agency’s insistence on higher standards of frugality and accountability. And for CHE advocates to openly counter those opponents.
There should be no question that the commission deserves broad support, legislative and otherwise, for its efforts to restrain skyrocketing college tuition and fees, as well as ill-considered building projects and program expansions. Unfortunately, there are plenty of old-guard legislators who think they ought to be running higher education, the same way they control other aspects of state government.
Indeed, it must be particularly galling to some longtime legislators to face a resurgent CHE. After all, the commission once served as a rubber stamp for college projects. But that’s no way to assure that the state’s 33 colleges and universities can remain financially viable for the long term. The CHE has attempted to impose a long overdue measure of fiscal restraint upon college trustees as needed. Naturally, that has rankled administrators and trustees who have been used to having their way, often with the assistance of hometown legislators and influential alumni.
The legislative Joint Bond Review Committee, for example, has been willing to help those boosters with end runs around the CHE, recently for athletic-related building projects.
That underscores the need for a stronger CHE. And the resurgent commission has been a responsible force for limiting the growth ambitions of public universities and their legislative advocates. For example, the CHE has adopted a fiscally sound policy that focuses first on overdue building repair and maintenance, rather than new projects.
Tim Hofferth, chairman of the CHE, recently called higher ed’s financial outlook “a billion dollar crisis for the state.”
The commission also wants to encourage state colleges to enroll fewer out-of-state students and more in-state students, recognizing that serving South Carolina residents is the first goal of public institutions of higher education. The CHE has been particularly critical of the University of South Carolina’s rising enrollment of out-of-state students. The latest freshman class is about 43 percent out-of-state.
In short, the commission and its staff have been willing to apply the brakes. Legislators who have the long-term interest of higher education in mind should recognize the importance of what the CHE does, and support its efforts to ensure the long-term health of public colleges and universities.
Sometimes that means saying no.