Many state lawmakers would like to blame the problem of high tuition at state colleges and universities completely on wasteful spending and costly construction projects. But to get at the real cause, they need to look in the mirror.
S.C. House Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, announced last week that when lawmakers return to Columbia in January, they will be looking to rein in excessive spending at colleges and universities, including a possible cap on tuition increases. White, who is the top budget writer in the House, said lawmakers will be looking at different options for reining in what he calls the runaway costs of higher education.
Apparently, though, raising state funding for higher education is not one of those options. White said he gets upset when “higher ed folks” bring up the topic of reduced funding.
South Carolina undeniably has a problem with high tuition rates. The state’s 12 four-year public colleges charge an average annual tuition of $9,899, or 39 percent more than the national average, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
South Carolina schools charged the highest average tuition for public colleges in the Southeast in 2011, and among the highest nationwide. Tuition at some schools, such as the University of South Carolina, has risen 30 percent since the economic downturn started in 2007, more than double the rate of inflation.
But that is not simply the result of profligate spending by the schools or grandiose construction projects. It’s largely the result of reduced funding by the state.
College officials note that the Legislature has cut funding for higher education by 40 percent since 2002, among the sharpest reductions in the nation. As much as White and other lawmakers might like to brush that off, the facts can’t be ignored.
We are sympathetic to college students who graduate burdened with debts on loans used to pay for their educations. Since 2004, total student debt has tripled to more than $1.2 trillion – now second only to mortgage debt on the nation’s balance sheet.
The average student loan debt is more than $26,000. And repaying that debt with only a low-paying job can be difficult to nearly impossible. The delinquency rate on student debt, according to a recent study, is close to 30 percent.
We wouldn’t argue with White that higher tuition is a real burden. But a realistic solution has to include more support for higher education from the state.
White also cites the cost of campus construction projects. And, indeed, of the $772 million college officials have asked for in additional spending beginning in the next fiscal year, about $550 million would go for one-time expenses, including buildings.
But if the state’s public universities are going to attract the best students, they have to be able to compete with modern, well equipped buildings, from dorms to laboratories to fitness centers.
It always is legitimate to try to root out wasteful spending and unnecessary new capital expenses in any budget. But if lawmakers are sincere about wanting to lighten the tuition burden on students, they have to look at the whole picture, including the cuts in state funding for higher education.