A growing number of out-of-state students are getting tuition breaks at S.C. public colleges as schools vie to enroll more students.
The colleges say they are taking in more out-of-state students to offset drops in state funding during the economic downturn. Schools also say out-of-state students help the South Carolina’s economy.
But some politicians question whether the investment comes at a cost to S.C. taxpayers and in-state students.
“It’s outrageous,” said state Rep. James Merrill, R-Berkeley. “We have in-state students who can’t get into (S.C.) universities because their SAT scores drag down the university. ... It’s selling yourself for the short-term gain.”
At South Carolina’s 12 public four-year colleges, nearly 13,400 out-of-state students paid tuition discounted from posted out-of-state rates last year, based on an analysis of data collected by the state Commission on Higher Education. Those discounts have increased 43 percent during the past five years after rising by a slower 15 percent pace between 2002 and 2007.
S.C. colleges have admitted more out-of-state students as they have grown their enrollment to bring in more tuition money to offset drops in state funding. The University of South Carolina’s state funding, for example, has dropped $75.5 million, or 41 percent, since 2007. The dozen schools added 14,100 students over the past decade, an increase of 15.6 percent.
“There’s a national arms race for enrollment,” USC vice president for student affairs Dennis Pruitt said. “These (out-of-state) students have so many options.”
$82 million in discounts
The tuition breaks can be big incentives in drawing out-of-state students to S.C. colleges.
Nonresident tuition at South Carolina’s four-year colleges averaged $12,143 a year, or 120 percent, more than in-state tuition in 2012-13, according an analysis of commission data. Out-of-state tuition at the colleges averaged $22,286 last year.
S.C. regulators do not collect data on the total amount of tuition that schools cut for out-of-state students. But at the state’s two largest schools, the tuition breaks given out-of-state students were worth an estimated $82 million in 2012-13.
USC said 6,418 out-of-state students received an average discount of $10,312 on their out-of-state tuition last year. Those discounts totaled $66.2 million, based on an analysis of state college enrollment data.
Clemson University said 3,160 out-of-state students received tuition discounts averaging $5,000 last year. Those discounts totaled $15.8 million.
School leaders argue the true cost of the tuition breaks given out-of-state students is hard to calculate. Many of the students would not have come to S.C. colleges without the merit scholarships that make up the bulk of the nonresident discounts, the officials say.
Ryan Finlay, a USC freshman from Harrisburg, N.C., will receive $52,000 in aid from a merit-based scholarship over the next four years. The public health major said he would have gone to a school closer to home without the scholarship, which cuts his tuition in half.
“It ended up coming out just right below what it would be going to a school five minutes from my house,” Finlay said, walking through the Horseshoe last week. “I love this area a lot more. It’s just so much nicer and calm.”
‘We want a brain gain’
S.C. college leaders said they have enough room for the out-of-state students, including Finlay, because they have grown their enrollment in recent years.
“We have more seats than students in South Carolina,” said Chuck Knepfle, financial aid director at Clemson, where total enrollment has increased 23 percent in the past decade, about the same rate as USC.
The out-of-state students also help fill intellectual and employment voids in the state, the schools say.
“Some of those high-performing students make South Carolina their home. We want a brain gain,” said Brian McGee, chief of staff to the president at the College of Charleston, which has one of the highest rates of out-of-state students but also one of the lowest rates of nonresident students getting tuition discounts, 13 percent.
USC has one of the highest. Six out of 10 out-of-state students enrolled at the Columbia school received a full or partial discount on their tuition last year, according to state data. The number of out-of-state tuition discounts at USC has grown by nearly 150 percent over the past decade – second-most among South Carolina’s four-year colleges.
Clemson gave tuition breaks to four out of 10 nonresidents last year, up 46 percent from a decade earlier.
‘Give me a break’
The number of out-of-state students enrolled in S.C. colleges has risen over the last decade – to 30 percent from 25 percent – as the state’s biggest schools have aimed to boost their admission standards, including boosting their average SAT scores.
At USC, for instance, those scores have risen by nearly 100 points since 2001.
“Are there enough (S.C.) students who score 1,200 SATs, which is our average?” Pruitt asked. “Do (lawmakers) want us to bring in students who are academically prepared, or do they prefer we bring in students who can’t make it academically and then leave early with (student loan) debt?”
State Rep. Merrill isn’t buying that argument. State colleges should help S.C. students first, he says.
“Give me a break,” he said. “I don’t know what land they’re living in. ... I would take the top kids at Irmo High or at Hanahan and put them up against anyone else in the country. It’s utter bunk that we have to get an inordinate amount of brilliant children (from) elsewhere that we cannot produce here.”
Merrill said he would like to know what kind of return on investment the state receives from allowing so many out-of-state students into the state’s public colleges.
A 2007 S.C. Commission on Higher Education study sheds some light.
One of five nonresidents who graduated from S.C. public four-year colleges in 2002 still were in the state five years later, an analysis of the report found. (The study did not break out how many of those students received tuition breaks.)
In contrast, nearly 75 percent of in-state graduates from four-year schools were living in South Carolina in 2007.
‘A delicate balance’
S.C. educators argue that exposing in-state students to students from other states is an important part of higher education.
“We want them to understand what that level of competition would be once they graduate,” Winthrop University provost Debra Boyd said. “It’s a delicate balance.”
Winthrop was one of four S.C. schools – with Lander University, Francis Marion University and USC Aiken – that gave 75 percent or more of its out-of-state students tuition breaks last year. Many of Winthrop’s breaks came from offering discounts to students from 12 North Carolina counties that are part of a reciprocal tuition agreement between the states.
Students from several Southeast states also can pay in-state tuition rates for academic programs at S.C. colleges that are not offered in their home states.
S.C. schools also offer tuition breaks for out-of-state students and their dependents who are: military service members; faculty at public colleges; retirees who have lived in the state less than a year; and workers with full-time jobs who have taken steps to become S.C. residents.
But scholarships make up 80 percent of the out-of-state tuition discounts at South Carolina’s four-year colleges.
Offering less, getting more
Over the past decade, the number of out-of-state students receiving scholarships rose 141 percent at USC and 51 percent at Clemson.
School officials say the number of scholarships has grown because the colleges have chosen to give smaller tuition discounts to more out-of-state students.
At the same time, USC and Clemson say the number of free rides given to out-of-state student has fallen. The number of out-of-state students at USC getting full-tuition scholarships has fallen 13 percent to 508 since 2008. At Clemson, only 10 nonresident students get full rides, down from about 250 five years ago, the school says.
“Discounting the entire tuition for so many out-of-state students was not fair,” said Knepfle, the Clemson financial aid director.
The number of out-of-state students paying full tuition also has risen, increasing by 14 percent at four-year colleges – and by one-third at USC – since 2007. This spike came as the average discount for out-of-state students at USC has fallen to 38 percent from 49 percent.
“We’re offering less money and getting more of them,” Pruitt said of out-of-state students.
‘It would be a shame’
But some lawmakers want to find ways to make sure S.C. colleges collect more tuition from out-of-state students.
During the past two years, Merrill has introduced legislation that would ban students who initially pay out-of-state tuition rates to S.C. colleges from later paying in-state rates. About 1,600 nonresident students at four-year colleges have been able to establish S.C. residency while enrolled at state schools, according to an analysis of state data.
College officials are wary, saying South Carolina should not push away out-of-state students.
“It would be a shame to punish them,” Clemson’s Knepfle said.
Reach Shain at (803) 771-8619