Summit kicks off debate on why S.C. college tuition is so costly

Undergraduate Student Government President Ryan Duane answers a question from Gov. Mark Sanford during a summit Tuesday with college leaders. College and finance officials, along with a panel of legislators, discussed the state's rising tuition rates and

COLUMBIA -- Gov. Mark Sanford and higher education leaders don't agree on the causes of skyrocketing tuition at the state's public colleges.

But the governor's Higher Education Summit at Midlands Technical College in Columbia Tuesday launched an important discussion, both sides agreed.

Sanford and a panel of legislators and finance and higher education leaders made presentations to a standing-room-only crowd. Then the floor was open to questions and discussion on issues related to the cost of higher education.

What dominated the meeting was the question of whether cuts in state funding, or lack of efficiency and restraint by higher education institutions, was the cause of tuition increases.

Sanford asked Rebecca Gunnlaugsson, an economist from the state Department of Commerce, to make a presentation at the summit on enrollment, tuition, state support, and the impact of lottery-funded scholarships. He said she was an unbiased third-party.

Gunnlaugsson found:

--South Carolina's tuition is the highest in the Southeast.

--Enrollment of out-of-state students has grown in the last decade.

--The percentage of out-of-state students paying the full cost of out-of-state tuition rates has decreased.

"There's been an enormous explosion in out-of-state student growth," she said. In 2008, the most recent year for which she presented data, six out-of-state students enrolled in a South Carolina college for every one South Carolina student who went to a school outside the state.

While Sanford has said out-of-state students cost the colleges money, Garrison Walters, director of the state's Commission on Higher Education, said out-of-state tuition more than covers the cost of a South Carolina education.

The conversation at the summit raised other old and unsettled disagreements in higher education, such as whether:

--Scholarship money from the South Carolina Education Lottery counts as state support for schools or a tuition break for students and parents.

--Building new facilities on campuses increases the cost of tuition.

Sanford said after the meeting he thought bringing in Gunnlaugsson to present data would help us " agree on a common set of numbers." But "we couldn't do that," he said.

Sanford, who is in his last few months as the state's governor, said he has tried to reform higher education, but never got the support.

He has proposed creating a Board of Regents to govern the state's higher education institutions, and limiting tuition increases to the Higher Education Price Index, an inflation rate specific to colleges and universities. But neither of those proposals succeeded.

Some higher education leaders at the summit disagreed with the numbers Gunnlaugsson presented.

Brian McGee, chief of staff for College of Charleston President George Benson, said, "We need a common data set" before we can move forward. "We have to agree on how to count."

McGee suggested forming a group to decide which data to use, and how to present it so that everyone can feel comfortable with it.

Talbert Black, a Clemson graduate and a parent of a Clemson student, said he just wants to know why tuition is so high.

McGee and other higher education leaders said they are deeply concerned about the cost of tuition. And their boards agonize over the decision to increase tuition.

The College of Charleston raised tuition 14.75 percent this year, the highest percentage increase in the state.

LaQunya Baker, a College of Charleston student and secretary of the school's Student Government Association, said she's satisfied with the explanations school leaders gave for needing to raise tuition. But she's still concerned that a college education could soon be priced beyond the reach of many South Carolinians.

Cathy Sams, a spokeswoman for Clemson University, said university officials are concerned about both cost and the quality of the education the school provides.

The school has made great strides in recent years, she said. "We don't want to backslide."

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.