Higher ed’s higher purpose

Gov. Nikki Haley wants to bring greater accountability to higher education — a tall order in a state with too many public colleges, too much duplication, and too much opportunity for legislative meddling.

The governor wants to bring the system to heel by making it “pay for itself.”

But the governor’s focus on jobs and technical specialization says that she is overstressing economic development in her assessment of higher ed.

Higher ed is important for better jobs and better pay, as the state’s technical colleges have proven. But making economic development the overarching goal for higher ed threatens to shortchange the system and its students.

The place to begin improving accountability is the state Commission on Higher Education. It needs greater authority.

The governor outlined her plan last week at a higher education summit in Columbia. She cited several prerequisites for obtaining funding support.

“This is not rocket science,” Gov. Haley said. “Are you placing kids in jobs? Are you coordinating with companies to get apprenticeships? How many in-state versus out of state? Is your tuition affordable?”

Those are legitimate questions.

But higher ed isn’t all about jobs, jobs, jobs. The state’s colleges and universities have a responsibility to provide an environment in which students can broaden their intellectual scope and hone their analytical skills in preparation for larger responsibilities in whatever fields they choose to pursue. If anything, there should be more rigor in traditional programs designed to provide what used to be called a liberal education.

The state’s higher ed assets should be focused on providing quality throughout the system — in liberal arts, as well as technical fields that provide for ready employment.

That might be a hard sell in a tough economy, but South Carolina’s leaders should recognize that higher ed and the state stand to lose if the system is graded wholly, or even primarily, for its capacity to contribute to job creation and as an asset for new industries.

Gov. Haley wants to eliminate funding to universities “based on football tickets and how big they are.” Certainly, skewed priorities need to be adjusted, with greater attention to academic quality all around.

Duplication among colleges needs to be addressed, too. While it should be evident that there are too many state-supported schools in South Carolina, it’s also highly unlikely that any of those 33 colleges will ever be closed.

When then-Gov. Mark Sanford recommended closing two small-town branches of USC in 2004, he couldn’t even get a hearing from parochial lawmakers. Nor was there much legislative opposition to the creation of a third medical school in Greenville last year.

Strengthening the Commission on Higher Education would help curtail empire building at state colleges.

Without a stronger central authority for the higher education system, real accountability will be difficult to achieve.