COLUMBIA — INSIDE
Key S.C. lawmakers said they want more details before agreeing to the University of the South Carolina’s offer Wednesday to freeze tuition and requests for state money for special projects for three years in exchange for more money from the General Assembly.
USC president Harris Pastides, who proposed the trade during his annual state of the university address Wednesday, also repeated his request that the Legislature adopt a performance-based funding formula for S.C. public colleges that could bring more state dollars to the state’s flagship university.
Pastides wants the state to cover the cost of pay increases and higher health-insurance premiums for USC employees, as well as the school’s higher energy bills. The cost of those increases now is only partially paid for by the money budgeted by the lawmakers.
“Let’s agree to meet state government halfway,” Pastides said in his speech on the Horseshoe.
In return, a three-year tuition freeze would save USC students a total of $1,000, based on recent hikes of 3 percent a year.
Several lawmakers who hold higher education’s purse strings – including Republican state Sens. Harvey Peeler of Cherokee and John Courson of Richland, and GOP state Rep. Chip Limehouse of Charleston – praised the idea of a tuition freeze. But the legislators said they need to know how much more state money USC wants in return.
“The budget is like a water bed – if you push down one part, another part gets pushed out,” said Limehouse, who heads the House higher education budget subcommittee.
Pastides and some lawmakers said USC’s proposal has a better chance of succeeding if other S.C. public colleges agree to a tuition freeze as well. However, the state’s second- and third-largest colleges, Clemson University and the College of Charleston, said they have no immediate plans to make the same offer.
State university and political leaders have worked on ways to make college more affordable. However, S.C. schools charged the highest average tuition for public colleges in the Southeast in 2011.
“Let’s invest in higher education at levels that make common sense,” Pastides said. “The public wants that, I believe.”
Parents and students have sought a break from spiking tuition rates. USC’s tuition for in-state students – now, $10,816 a year – has risen by 30 percent since the economic downturn started in 2007, more than double the rate of inflation. Tuition rose 3 percent this year but has increased as much as 7 percent a year during the slowdown.
Meanwhile, annual state funding of the school has dropped by $76 million to $108 million over the past six years. South Carolina ranks among the lowest in the country in state funding of its public colleges.
However, USC has received added state money for several special projects in recent years – including expanding its summer semester, helping pay for a new $80 million law school and a new online college. Pastides said he does not expect any projects would be delayed by a three-year freeze in the school’s requests for extra state money for special projects. The school could use fundraising to pay for special projects, he added. USC is in the midst of a $1 billion fundraising campaign.
Pastides said he is willing to set aside special requests for added state money to help win support for a plan to fund S.C. colleges based on their performance, including their graduation rate. Schools now get state money largely on a formula that gives a set percentage to various institutions, regardless of their performance.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has backed more money for public colleges because of their role in driving the state’s economy, her office said Wednesday.
“It is also why the governor has fought, alongside president Pastides, for accountability-based funding reform measured on performance, which has been passed by the House and awaits passage in the Senate,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said.
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the Kershaw Democrat expected to run against Haley for governor next year, said he applauds efforts to lower the cost of public-college tuition.
“The offer extended by president Pastides today is exactly what we need: Having the state and our universities work together to make higher education more affordable,” he said. “Any investment from the state would also require a commitment from the schools to reduce costs – that’s the responsible way to move forward.”