COLUMBIA — South Carolina public colleges are among the country’s most expensive state-backed schools.
S.C. college officials blame their high tuitions and fees, in part, on the small amount of money that they get from the state, compared to public schools in other states. But top S.C. politicians say the state’s public colleges should do a better job of finding savings so that they can keep students’ costs down.
The cost of attending South Carolina’s public colleges is expected to be an issue in the gubernatorial campaign next year.
“The math doesn’t lie,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat running for governor. “It’s a tax on young people to get educated.”
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, expected soon to announce her re-election bid, said she hopes a proposed plan to reward schools for meeting various standards could help end large tuition hikes.
“This is ... not getting (funding) based on football tickets, not getting it based on alum,” Haley said. “This will make sure that schools get what they need, based on what they’ve done to perform well.”
South Carolina’s 12 four-year public colleges had the nation’s seventh-highest average tuition among all state-backed schools in 2011-12, according to The State’s analysis of data released by the U.S. Department of Education last month.
Tuition and fees at Palmetto State schools averaged $9,899 – 39 percent more than the national average of $7,135. Tuition and fee costs in South Carolina, a poor state comparatively, were the highest in the South, just ahead of Virginia.
Part of the problem, S.C. schools say, is that four-year public colleges in only two states received a smaller percentage of their total revenue from state funding, compared to South Carolina in 2010-11, according to a report from the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board that was released last month.
State funding for S.C. four-year colleges dropped 40 percent, or $167 million, between 2002 and 2011, according to the state Commission on Higher Education records.
S.C. schools have made up for the loss of state money, in part, by boosting their enrollment. The number of students at four-year S.C. colleges grew by 9 percent, or about 8,000 students, between 2007 and 2011, according to state higher education data.
‘This had to stop’
Tuition and fees at four S.C. schools – Winthrop University, Clemson University, The Citadel and the University of South Carolina – ranked among the nation’s top 100 priciest public colleges in 2011-12, according to Education Department data. Wintrhop ranked 49th with a year in tuition and fees at $12,656.
Both USC and Clemson had the highest tuition that academic year in their respective athletic conferences, Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference.
Officials at the college defend their school’s high costs – as representing a value. “It’s a private-school quality education at a public-school price,” said president Jayne Comstock, who took over Winthrop this month.
The least expensive S.C. public college – USC Beaufort – had an annual tuition that was $1,000 more than the national average.
After major spikes a decade ago, tuition increases at S.C. schools have slowed in recent years.
At USC, for instance, tuition rose 13 percent a year from 2001 to 2005, on average.
“This had to stop,” said state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, the Senate’s chief budget writer.
And so Leatherman moved to stop the big increases – with a threat.
Since 2009, Leatherman has sent a letter to public college presidents and board of trustee leaders each year suggesting maximum tuition hikes that they should make, based on consumer-price index projections and a higher-education inflation index from Commonfund, a Connecticut money manager for college endowments.
To make sure colleges got the message, the S.C. Budget and Control Board – which approves state construction projects – threatened to hold up all building if schools did not lower their tuition hikes.
“It’s worked,” said Leatherman, one of five members of the budget board. “We’ve got tuition increases under control.”
USC chief financial officer Ed Walton said Leatherman is a big reason that tuition hikes have moderated. But schools also began to realize they could no longer raise their tuitions sharply without hurting enrollment.
“If anybody out there thought they could raise tuition double digits in South Carolina right now in this market, they’d find out that students would simply go somewhere else,” Walton said.
If tuition rises too much, Walton said more S.C. students might go to Alabama’s public universities, which aggressively are pursuing out-of-state students to boost the economies of that state’s college towns.
USC’s other competitors largely are schools in the Southeastern Conference, including Florida, which had the nation’s lowest average tuition – $3,812 – in 2011-12.
Like USC, Clemson said its tuition increases over the past decade have gone to pay for investments on campus, and to offset state funding cuts and inflation.
USC’s Walton said other factors include rising health care costs and employee raises that schools cannot avoid and are not always fully covered by state funding, Walton said.
Clemson officials also noted “tuition isn’t always a good indicator of what people actually pay.”
Many S.C. students get lottery scholarships of up to $10,000 a year. The average in-state student receives enough scholarship awards to cut the sticker price of tuition by more than half at USC and Clemson.
Despite those lottery scholarships, South Carolina’s high tuition costs will be the subject of political debate during the 2014 elections.
Democrat Sheheen blames tuition spikes on lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly who have not made higher-education funding a priority in recent years. Sheheen said he is concerned about students who leave the state because higher S.C. tuitions make it “so hard to move up the economic ladder.”
Sheheen thinks S.C. colleges and universities should get state money based on the number of students that they educate, rather than politics.
Instead, for years, S.C. schools have received the same proportion of state funding. USC, for instance, gets about 40 percent of state money earmarked for four-year colleges. Clemson receives about 24 percent.
Republican Haley said she backs accountability-based funding that would reward schools for their performance in a number of areas, including retaining students who enroll, and their graduation rates and financial health. That proposed funding plan did not get through the General Assembly this year but could have a chance in 2014.
“All of a sudden the questions of, ‘Well, this school shouldn’t have gotten it or that school shouldn’t have gotten it’ will stop,” Haley said. “The schools can no longer make excuses for high tuition rates because they’ll have the ability to get (more state money) based on performance.”
Staff writer Jamie Self contributed.