State board puts project moratorium on colleges that raise tuition

09/30/2010 12:00 AM

09/30/2010 6:55 AM

The powerful State Budget and Control Board, angry about big tuition increases, slapped a moratorium on some college development projects Wednesday, serving notice to school officials that they will not be allowed to pass on the impact of budget cuts to students.

"People in South Carolina are hurting," said state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, the Florence County Republican and Senate Finance Committee chairman who proposed the moratorium. "We've got to put a stop to these double-digit tuition increases."

Four-year public colleges and universities that raised tuition 7 percent or higher this year are subject to the moratorium. So, too, are public, two-year schools that raised tuition 6.3 percent or higher. Schools must certify to the board that they will hold tuition increases to those levels or below for the spring 2011 semester in order to have the moratorium lifted.

The 7.0 percent and 6.3 percent thresholds, pushed for by Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom and approved by the five-member budget board, are an attempt to bring tuition increases in South Carolina to regional averages.

The University of South Carolina's Columbia campus, where tuition was increased 6.9 percent this year, is not affected by the moratorium. Nor is S.C. State University, which increased its tuition 5.2 percent.

But many of the state's other schools, including Clemson University, The Citadel, the College of Charleston, all of the regional campuses in USC's system and several technical schools, will be under the moratorium. Figures included in the packet of information board members used to make their decision included an average tuition increase of 9 percent at the Medical University of South Carolina, but that school has many different tuition rates for its wide range of programs and it was not clear whether the university would be subject to the moratorium.

Budget board members carved out several exceptions to the moratorium. Projects that have already been fully approved can continue. Deferred maintenance projects can go forward. Others that deal with health and safety - projects that, say, install fire alarms or fire sprinkler systems - are also exempted from the moratorium. And projects that are paid for with private money are not covered by the moratorium.

Because the 7.0 percent and 6.3 percent thresholds were added to Leatherman's initial proposal, which called for a moratorium on projects at schools with tuition increases of 7.3 percent or higher, school officials were scrambling to figure out which projects would be halted.

"At this point, we do not know the impact the moratorium will have on The Citadel," Jeff Perez, The Citadel's vice president for external affairs, said in comments e-mailed to The State. "We are trying to get more details and clarification so we can assess it."

The College of Charleston was also trying to gauge the impact of the moratorium.

"The actions taken today by the State Budget and Control Board were a surprise to us," said Mike Robertson, the College of Charleston's senior director of media relations. "They require that we re-evaluate our current position on tuition, capital projects and our recently approved strategic plan."

The Citadel and the College of Charleston approved the largest tuition increases in the state - 13 percent and 14.8 percent, respectively. Increases at those schools, which made The Citadel $1,136 more expensive this year and made the College of Charleston $1,326 more expensive, angered legislators who complained that school officials were not mindful enough of the economic pain already being felt by students and families.

School officials have argued repeatedly that state budget cuts left them little choice but to raise tuition if they were to maintain or expand the quality of their academic programming. They note that the number of students applying to their schools is at or near record levels, despite previous tuition increases and the difficulties of the economic downturn. And they point out that tuition is a misleading sticker price few students actually pay, given the large number of students who qualify for lottery-funded scholarships.

Still, tuition increases, combined with large-scale building projects at campuses across the state, chipped away at the tentative support colleges and universities had among legislators.

Anger over tuition increases united Leatherman and Gov. Mark Sanford, who have clashed frequently on the budget board. "Thank you, sir, for doing that," Sanford told Leatherman after both voted for the moratorium.

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