Comstock lobbies education officials in Columbia

adouglas@heraldonline.comAugust 15, 2013 

— Winthrop University’s new president wants to avoid raising tuition next year and gradually increase the college’s enrollment by 1,000 students, hoping to relieve some financial stress caused by declining taxpayer support for public schools.

In her first presentation to the Commission on Higher Education – a 14-member board appointed by the state’s governor – President Jayne Marie Comstock asked for $886,200 of recurring state money to support Winthrop’s academic mission.

Every year, presidents from publicly funded colleges and universities in South Carolina meet with commission members to tout their institutions’ achievements and make budget requests.

The commission then makes recommendations to state lawmakers on how to allocate taxpayer dollars to the colleges.

The majority of the money Comstock requested Thursday morning would go toward paying eight faculty members in various science departments at Winthrop.

Winthrop has seen a significant enrollment jump in students who major in science, Comstock said.

In a seven-year period, the university’s biology program added 100 students, and its chemistry program nearly doubled in size, with 133 students enrolled in 2012.

The college’s summer research program has more than tripled its student participation since starting in 2008.

About $200,000 of the money Comstock requested on Thursday would support employees in Winthrop’s business and social work departments and its study center for student-athletes.

Comstock also asked that the state help pay for four employees who will work directly with York Technical College students enrolled in a new bridge program that will make it easier to transfer to Winthrop for a four-year degree.

In making her request, Comstock assured the commission that “Winthrop is in good hands” under her leadership.

Taking over for retired President Anthony DiGiorgio, Comstock started her job this summer.

In her early assessment of Winthrop, she said, she’s noted that undergraduate enrollment at the school has been flat for 10 years, while nationwide the number of students attending U.S. universities and colleges is at a historic high.

In South Carolina, undergraduate enrollment has increased by about 22 percent over the past decade at universities similar to Winthrop.

Data on graduate student enrollment shows that Winthrop is ahead of the curve in attracting students seeking master’s degrees.

Winthrop has room to grow, Comstock said, and can serve an additional 1,000 students.

More employees would be needed to serve more students, and more residential space for on-campus students would most likely be required, she said.

Winthrop’s growth is worth investing state tax dollars in, she said, because the university is supporting “brain gain in South Carolina.”

Comstock highlighted the fact that 87 percent of the Winthrop student population is made up of South Carolina students and about 80 percent of the university’s graduates remain in the state.

Winthrop also wants to help improve the state’s number of high school students who graduate on time and go on to college, she said.

Increasing access to quality higher education, Comstock said, is the “key civil rights movement of our time.”

A great barrier to entering college is cost, she said, adding that, nationwide, the price of attending college has soared by 73 percent while the median income level has gone down.

At Winthrop, where tuition for students is higher than at any public school in the state except for the Medical University of South Carolina, Comstock said her university meets 61 percent of a student’s financial aid need.

Earlier this week, she challenged Winthrop’s staff to up its fundraising efforts and start meeting at least 80 percent of students’ financial needs.

Because of Winthrop’s commitment to remaining accessible for students of all social and economic backgrounds, the school is really “South Carolina’s university,” Comstock told Commission on Higher Education members.

While she’s committed to increasing enrollment and securing more private donors, Comstock said she’d like to see some state allocations restored after years of decreased taxpayer support.

Comstock said she hopes new strategies will help Winthrop avoid raising tuition next year – something it has done for the past several years along with nearly every other public school in the state.

If tuition is increased, she said, she would like to see the increase be lower than the 3.1 percent hike Winthrop implemented this year.

In Comstock’s request, Winthrop also is seeking $2.9 million from the state to pay for a new roof on its Withers Building – a 101-year-old academic building that houses a school for children and its teacher preparation classes.

Winthrop also has requested a capital bond through the state to build a new library and “technology hub.”

The new library was estimated in 2010 to cost $50 million and has been designed to serve up to 12,000 students and faculty members.

Anna Douglas 803-329-4068

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