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SC gov candidates debate in Rock Hill

Six politicians who want to be South Carolina's next governor took the stage tonight to debate the future of higher education.

The debate, sponsored by the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, was at Winthrop University's McBryde Hall in Rock Hill. Participating in the forum were: Republicans - Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, state Rep. Nikki Haley of Lexington and state Attorney General Henry McMaster; and Democrats - State Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston, state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden

U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett was unable to attend because he had a jobs vote in Washington, D.C.

About 200 people filled two-thirds of the seats, including a host of York County political figures such as Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols, Solicitor Kevin Brackett and state Rep. Gary Simrill.

Here are excerpts from the debate:

First question: State funding to colleges and universities have significant cuts. Is it appropriate for public colleges to aggressively seek out of state students to help make up for shortfalls?

Bauer: Absolutely, it brings diversity. We want the diversity. We want people from all walks of life and from all over the world coming to our institutions here in South Carolina. ... It's a way for us to market our great state.

McMaster - Leave up to presidents and boards of each institution. I believe we've got to get our state back on the road to prosperity.

Haley: We need to make sure we educate our own students first, not out of state students. ... We need to make sure accountability measures are in place to see why we're taking out of state instead of in state.

Sheheen: Accessibility and affordability to our students. We can do both, but we have to focus on the paramount importance, which our students.

Ford: If we're going to put South Carolina first, then we need to do that. His said plan to add $50 million per year to higher education will help support SC students.

Rex: We have a train wreck here in South Carolina. We're talking about funding education at higher education at the 1984 level. There won't be enough capacity to support own students, much less out of state folks, if current economy continues. .We want out of state students, but we don't want to do it to the exclusion of our students.

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Question 2: How, when state funding is removed, how do you keep tuition low and increase academic quality?

Ford: Again says his plan to add $50 in funding will help.

Haley: If we reduced our retail commission for lottery from 7 to 6 percent we would add $10 million to higher education.

Sheheen: It's a question of priorities. "It will take time."

Bauer: We're going to have to prioritize. ... I see escalating football coaches salaries going up in these tough times.

Rex: We're not talking about $10 million here, $2 million there. We're talking $100s of millions. The answer is comprehensive tax reform. The short term solution is raising the cigarette tax to the national average (met with a round of applause). We're talking about a 30-cents increase that would add $240 million to our economy.

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Question 3: Would you favor using cigarette taxes to fund higher education?

Haley: It's not what you pay, it's how you spend that matters. Cigarette tax is a band-aid. We need to look at every single tax, then look at how we prioritize spending. Not just education, but across the board. ... If higher ed, needs money then show us why?

Sheheen: There's no excuse not to raise cigarette tax. It's the lowest in the nation. The cigarette tax should go to health care.... any excess should be put into education.

Bauer: Would not support raising the tax to fund education. If you want revenue for long term, don't look at short-term taxes, he said.

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Question 4: Would you support tuition caps?

Sheheen: Tuition caps not the answer right now. The most import issue in higher education today is the affordability for students.

Haley: Look at accountability standards on in state vs. out of state. Then decide on tuition caps. Caps is not fair to everyone.

McMaster: Wouldn't support tuition caps. He said the state needs to make efforts for needs-based scholarships. Again, it comes back to priorities.

Bauer: No. Need more programs to make sure students are ready to go to college.

Rex: "You can't put a cap in place now. It would be irresponsible."

Ford: "At the end of the day, we've got to have more revenue. Says state needs new sources of revenue."

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Question 5: Should more emphasis be put on tech colleges as means to educate?

Haley: Yes. We have thousands of jobs open now that can't be filled because of lack of qualified workers.

Ford: Tech schools are successful because of revenue from lottery.

Rex: The Tech college system is nimble. It's also cheaper than 4-yr colleges. But we need to focus funding on all kinds of colleges to compete. We've driven tuition up so high in this state that we're misusing our technical colleges. People go there first to save money and then transfer.

Bauer: Tech schools are "a real crown jewel" in South Carolina. He said we need to encourage young people to find career path through tech schools. With the high drop-out rate, we need to use the technical colleges to lure those who may not necessarily go for a full 4-year degree but would excel in technical colleges.

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Question 6: How do you plan to increase the number of adults with college degree?

Haley: We're losing kids in ninth grade. We need to start with them in eighth grade. ... Look at industry and then match them up. We have a lot of kids who need to know there's an outlet for them. Job shadowing, mentoring, start at that ninth grade level by the time they reach high school level they will know they have a career path.

McMaster: First, we've got to get the children to college, right now we're not doing that.

Bauer: The schools that are struggling the most when you see very little parental involvement. Nobody wants to talk about it because it's not politically correct. ... But we have to get people involved. .... Expand programs to connect people with students.

Rex: Touts advocacy.

Ford: Increase graduation rate in SC. Incoming jobs can then go to more South Carolinians.

Sheheen: We have to make it affordable. Tuitions have doubled and tripled in South Carolina. ... We also have to show the students who drop out there are options through partnerships with technical colleges and high schools.

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Question 7: Should SC de-emphasize standardized test scores?

Rex: The challenge is to make sure minorities score as well as whites on tests if we're going to continue to use them.

Sheheen: We used to have a 50/50 scholarship split between merit-based and needs. We have to emphasis need-based scholarships for those in need, whether they be white or black. I'm committed to restoring that balance.

Bauer: I don't have a problem with current use of tests.

Haley: Need measures. If we create one commission for South Carolina, we are saving money and holding all accountable and we'll be comparing apples to apples.

McMaster: Need pilot programs to make sure students are learning at right levels and remain on track.

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Question 9: A lot of emphasis has been put on electric cars, hydrogen research. Should our institutions be full speed ahead forming those partnerships and projects.

Ford: The ones we already have will benefit whole state. "Already we are in to the future." Government needs to keep participating.

Rex: We have to pick our niches. When it comes to electric cars, I'm not sure that's best. I suggest nuclear power. We're about to enter into a nuclear renaissance. We're already a leader in South Carolina. We have to look for things we can lead in, not just participate in.

Bauer: We have to have a government that understands business and go out and travel the world to encourage people to come to South Carolina and invest.

McMaster: I think we're on the right track. We have to use the assets we have. We can market this state globally, not just nationally.

Haley: Get out of the mentality of 'If we build it, they will come." We work with our universities and technical schools to make sure they're training our workers. Don't gamble with taxpayers dollars.

Sheheen: We need a statewide plan on alternative energy production. We have wind potential on the coast. We have hydrogen opportunities and nuclear energy.

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Question 10 (submitted by e-mail): Do you believe the state has too many colleges and universities? Should we consolidate or eliminate?

Bauer: No. I've seen the value of small colleges.

Rex: No. We are going to have to ramp up in South Carolina and churn out a lot more graduates.

Ford: We need more higher education institutions. We're not going backward, we're going forward.

Sheheen: No. We need to have institutions located throughout the state.

Haley: We have 33 universities on 50 campuses in this state. We need technical schools in those smaller communities.

McMaster: No. What we lack is coordination and strategy.

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McMaster also answered a question about regulating colleges with a pledge to fight federal moves -- health care-- he deems unconstitutional. His response brought a large round of applause from the audience.

Check back for complete coverage.

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Commission chairman Ken Wingate, who moderated the debate, said it's important for the public to have an opportunity to evaluate candidates based on their views of higher education.

The business community and political leaders care about higher education, he said, as well as the tens of thousands of students and families of those students who attend colleges, universities and technical colleges in the state.

"It's highly regarded as an important feature of our state's economy," Wingate said, "but it could receive more attention and honest debate about ways we can better utilize the colleges and universities that already exist."

The next governor will play a "pivotal role" in determining how the state will meet that challenge, Wingate said.

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