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Drexel

AP

Chip Limehouse can count the ways a college-educated population helps make South Carolina a better place.

Higher incomes. Better quality of life. A more attractive spot for businesses looking to relocate or expand. A more stable tax base.

Which is why the local state lawmaker was not real happy to see the College of Charleston raise tuition by nearly 15 percent in the middle of a recession.

"This was not the year to be the poster child," Limehouse says. "Wrong place, wrong time."

In a Post and Courier Watchdog story, David Slade and Diane Knich reported that tuition at the state's public colleges and universities is going up at roughly the same rate as a Saturn V rocket. College tuition here now costs three times as much as it did a decade ago. Already, tuition here is more expensive than any other place in the South.

Limehouse is the one guy these state schools don't want to irritate. You see, he is chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee that writes the first draft of the higher ed budget.

The wrong way

Now, lawmakers will be the first to admit that the state budget for higher education has taken a hit in recent years -- along with everything else.

Those cuts are certainly a huge part of the problem. But, as Sunday's story pointed out, the College of Charleston has 300 more employees than it did a decade ago, nine times as much debt and half again as much building space.

"I'm disturbed by the trend," Limehouse says. "At a time we in government are cutting back drastically, they are adding debt and staff and teaching the same number of students. I don't know what it's going to take to get it through to them."

But, as you might guess, he has an idea.

Limehouse says the Legislature may pass a law next year to cap tuition increases -- something Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman has hinted at recently.

And you don't have to be a rocket scientist -- or even a college student -- to realize they're serious.

No quarter

Right now, only 22 percent of folks in the state have bachelor's degrees, which is below the national average but not bottom of the barrel (Thanks, Arkansas).

Some lawmakers clearly don't put enough value on higher education. And they screwed up the lottery scholarships by making them $5,000 vouchers, which ensures they are less valuable every year. Georgia did it right -- get a B, go to school for free. Now that's smart -- and inflation-proof.

But there is a real problem at work here. For all C of C's growth, there have been cutbacks there, too -- just as there have been at nearly every school in the state (except maybe S.C. State, which is so flush they can apparently just "lose" $25 million).

Limehouse, who counts himself as a huge College of Charleston ( and higher ed) supporter, says the problem is reconciling universities to the brave new world.

He's right, but it's not going to be easy. The state isn't bringing in enough money to keep these schools afloat, and nobody wants to pay more taxes or tuition. Something's gotta give.

Fact is, lawmakers are between rockheads and a hard place.