Many S.C. public colleges and universities are excessively expensive and have strayed too far from their core mission: educating students, according to a recent study by a Columbia-based think tank.
Tuition is rising faster than household income in South Carolina, according to the study of eight colleges and universities by the S.C. Policy Council, a public policy research and education foundation with a libertarian bint that advocates for more limited government.
The study, which left out many state institutions including Winthrop University, also states:
Schools do a poor job of retaining and graduating students.
The amount schools are spending on administrative costs is rising faster than the amount they are spending on instruction.
Instruction too often is tilted away from general education coursework toward "narrow or trendy subject matters."
Governance of higher education - from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education to the boards of the individual schools - does not encourage efficiency or offer help in measuring and improving academic quality.
"When taken as a whole, the findings of this report are troubling," the study states. "Many students throughout the state can graduate with large gaps in their knowledge. Tuition and costs are rising rapidly, and families are being asked to pay more and more of their hard-earned dollars."
Asked to comment about the study, school officials said they had not read it and declined. A few did offer general statements about higher education in South Carolina, statements that ran counter to the study's findings.
"Every so often, we hear from people who are convinced that higher education is broken," said Cathy Sams, chief public affairs officer at Clemson University. "We disagree. At Clemson, we're continuing to see record applications from outstanding students, steady growth in research expenditures, new initiatives in workforce development and more jobs coming to South Carolina in part because of our economic activities.
"Certainly, there are areas where we can continue to improve, but overall, there are good reasons to be optimistic about the future of higher education in South Carolina."
The study used data from Clemson, Coastal Carolina University, the College of Charleston, S.C. State University, and University of South Carolina campuses in Aiken, Beaufort, Columbia and Spartanburg.
Many public S.C. institutions were left out of the study, including Winthrop, The Citadel, Lander University and Francis Marion University. Those omissions could fuel an argument that the Policy Council chose to study schools that would yield a result it could use in its push its agenda, which includes a more unified form of higher education governance, such as a statewide board of regents, which school officials say would put a dent in the quality and individuality of the state's schools.
Ashley Landess, president of the Policy Council, said the schools studied represent a cross section of the public, four-year institutions.
"It would be impossible to study all of them," Landess said. "We chose the biggest schools in the state. I doubt that including one or two others would have changed things. These results are pretty alarming."
The Policy Council's study, done in conjunction with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, found areas it said should concern parents, students and schools alike.
"We asked how much families are paying to attend schools, how the schools are spending that money and what students are getting in return," American Council president Anne Neal wrote in an overview of the study. "And we found that this is an area of real concern."
Many of the schools studied decreased the amount of money they spent on instruction from 2003 through 2009 while increasing the amount spent on administrative costs, reflecting what the study calls "misplaced priorities."
The study pointed also out what parents and students in South Carolina know all too well: Colleges and universities in the Palmetto State are the most expensive in the South and are getting even more expensive.
From 2005-2006 to 2010-2011, the study found, in-state tuition and fees at S.C. institutions increased between 18 percent and 36 percent. Tuition, the study found, is requiring a larger percentage of a household's income.
"Meanwhile, at only three out of eight campuses did we find even two-thirds of the students receiving a degree within six years - suggesting that not only is tuition going up, but many students are paying well beyond the expected four years, and even beyond six years," Neal wrote. "Indeed, less than a quarter of students graduated within four years at a majority of the institutions studied."
Schools have a variety of programs designed to identify students who are struggling and get them the help they need.
College officials in South Carolina have heard complaints about high tuition rates before. They counter that tuition increases have been made necessary by the steadily decreasing amount of state money that goes to colleges and universities. They also argue tuition's "sticker price" is misleading. Few students pay that full cost, the colleges say, because a large percentage get some type of financial aid.
"It's true that state funding for higher education has decreased dramatically over the past four years," Sams said. "But it's also true that the state continues to offer one of the nation's most generous scholarship programs - and it was about the only state program to emerge from four years of funding cuts unscathed."