Drastic action needed to revamp higher education in S.C., says panel at Winthrop forum

That was the message at a Monday afternoon public forum in Rock Hill on a plan to revamp the way the state educates its residents.

"It's a critical issue," Garrison Walters, executive director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, told the audience. "In a knowledge-based economy, we would certainly fall further behind."

Against the backdrop of a national economic crisis and a worsening local economy, which finds South Carolina $488 million short of its budget and counting, education leaders are touring the state to drum up support for sweeping and expensive changes they say are essential to the state's future economic well-being.

"This is probably one of the worst times in my lifetime to present something like this," Daniel Ravenel, chairman of the S.C. Higher Education Study Committee, said in an interview after the forum.

He added that he is emboldened by the support he has seen so far.

About 50 people came out to a Winthrop University banquet hall to hear the panel of education officials from around the state discuss the findings of the committee charged with strategizing change.

The forum was the second of several the committee will hold before finalizing a draft of its plan to present to the S.C. General Assembly.

The dense 61-page report, titled "Leveraging Higher Education For a Stronger South Carolina: Recommendations for the Action Plan Implementation," focuses on four broad goals:

• Make South Carolina one of the most educated states. Overall, the report says, more than 30 percent of S.C. adults age 25 or older hold an associate degree or higher. That's lower than the national average of more than 34 percent. Massachusetts leads the nation, with nearly 45 percent.

• Increase research and innovation. South Carolina, according to the report, needs a "culture of creativity that attracts, develops and retains the most talented people in the world."

• Make S.C. a leader in workforce training and educational services.

• Realize S.C.'s potential through resources and effectiveness.

The plan is unusual, Walter said, because it offers solutions.

Under each goal, the report outlines dozens of ways the committee believes the state can reach these aspirations. Some suggestions appear to be cheaper and less lofty than others.

One recommendation is to require by law that anyone younger than 18 attend school.

Another is to make high school course work tougher.

One seeks to get more adults enrolled in college. Another: "Produce more and better prepared teachers in all critical needs areas, including more male and minority teachers."

After Walters presented the report, a panel of local education leaders discussed it. Goal four, or funding, was a common theme.

Without more money, said University of South Carolina-Lancaster dean John Catalano, "the first three goals are pie in the sky."

Each college panelist took a turn to one-up the others' money woes.

"We get less now than we did in 1996," said York Technical College president Greg Rutherford.

"Winthrop got less this year, I believe, than in 1989," said Tom Moore, Winthrop's vice president of academic affairs.

"I wish I could get $5,800 per student," Catalano said. He estimated his school receives closer to $2,000 per student. South Carolina, the report says, spends about $5,800 on each full-time college student.

Judging by comments from audience members and panelists, the committee's year-long effort was well received.

"The information in this report is really everything that you would ever want to do to improve higher education," Rutherford told the crowd.

However, the committee has yet to determine how much it will cost to act on the plan. Ravenel said he expects to have a figure in December and a final draft in time for the General Assembly when it reconvenes in January.

Ravenel left the crowd with a closing thought: "This system is not broken. We need to have more direction and more focus in what we do."

Extra credit reading:

Download a copy of the S.C. Higher Education Study Commission's plan at www.che.sc.gov.

Click on the committee's link on the right side of the page.

Click "Recommendations for Action Plan Implementation."