Sanford seeks tuition action

S.C. Governor Mark Sanford

Gov. Mark Sanford has added his voice to the growing chorus of officials calling for action on huge tuition increases.

On Monday, Sanford said the state's colleges and universities have raised tuition at alarming rates -- some, including the College of Charleston and The Citadel, approved double-digit increases -- while continuing to move forward with expensive new buildings and improvements to older facilities. The governor, who jumped into the tuition fray via a news release, also proposed instituting a statewide Board of Regents to oversee the higher education system and encouraged the General Assembly to place a cap on tuition increases.

Sanford's release comes after a Post and Courier report on tuition this month revealed that weak state support for higher education in South Carolina was just one of the reasons in-state undergraduate tuition is the highest in the Southeast and twice that of neighboring states. Other factors included institutions improving facilities and amenities for students because they compete with each other for applicants and prestige.

The newspaper also reported that state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a Florence Republican who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter to university leaders threatening targeted appropriations, targeted tuition caps, as well as reasonable caps on out-of-state student enrollment for those who raised tuition more than 7.3 percent.

Sanford, a long-term critic of higher-education spending and tuition increases, said, "there's something fundamentally wrong when the price of a college education at taxpayer-supported institutions grows at double-digit rates, all while our colleges and universities are embarking on expensive capital construction projects and massive new facility improvements."

The College of Charleston raised tuition 14.8 percent for the 2010-11 school year, the highest percentage increase in the state.

College spokesman Mike Robertson said nobody at the college would make a statement on the governor's news release.

The Citadel's vice president for external affairs, Jeff Perez, said, "We share Governor Sanford's concerns regarding the cost of higher education, and we recognize our responsibility to the people of South Carolina to keep our cost as affordable as possible while remaining one of the top academic and leadership experiences in the country. We struggle with a tug-of-war between cost and quality."

The Citadel raised tuition 13 percent for the 2010-11 school year.

Perez also said the military college has the highest four-year graduation rate in the state.

Cathy Sams, Clemson University's chief public affairs officer, said the school, which raised tuition 7.5 percent, received a record number of applications from outstanding students for the upcoming school year. "These outstanding students come to Clemson because they expect quality. They expect to have top teachers, opportunities for engagement outside the classroom, and access to leading technology and facilities -- and we're committed to meeting those expectations. A moratorium on facilities projects could undermine those efforts," Sams said.

Ted Moore, vice president for finance and planning at the University of South Carolina, said all USC campuses have worked to keep tuition as low as possible without sacrificing academic quality and student health and safety. But capital projects are essential for high-quality instruction and study in a safe, healthy, modern environment, he said. As the school enriches learning through investment in our facilities, it does not shift our focus from teaching and learning to undertake capital projects, Moore said.

USC raised tuition 6.9 percent at the Columbia campus.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who writes the first version of the House higher education budget, said, "I could not agree with the governor more on all counts."

Limehouse said he knows college and university budgets have taken some big hits over the past couple of years. But, he said, families simply can't afford the increases being placed on their shoulders.

Legislators will take actions if the schools don't do something to curb tuition hikes, he said. "Particularly the double-digit increases in tuition," Limehouse said. "That just has to stop."

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or dknich@postandcourier.com.