The most ambitious proposal in decades to overhaul higher education funding in South Carolina is one step closer to becoming law.
The Senate Finance Committee voted 17-4 during a Tuesday meeting to send the Opportunity Act (previously known as the Higher Education Opportunity Act) to the Senate floor for a vote.
At its core, the act would boost higher education funding through a $125 million trust fund for in-state students in exchange for a one-year tuition freeze and a 2.75 percent limit on tuition raises after that. The bill, which would be funded through the general fund and internet sales tax revenue, would also shift money from the state’s merit-based scholarships to its underfunded need-based scholarship program.
“The effect of this bill will be to leave money in parents’ pockets,” said bill sponsor Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw. “This moves higher education and colleges to the top of the issues we’re going to discuss this year.”
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Sheheen said he expects the Senate to vote on the bill in a few weeks.
“We can educate (students) or we can go back to the old system: incarcerate them,” said Sen. John Scott, D-Richland. “And we’ve learned that it’s cheaper to educate students than to incarcerate them.
“This is a good piece of legislation,” Scott said.
Support for the bill, while bipartisan, is not unanimous.
Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, voted against moving the bill to the Senate floor because he said there were too many unresolved issues. For example, the bill relies heavily on internet sales tax revenue. And with declining retail sales — and therefore declining retail sales tax revenue — Hembree said he worries other areas of the state budget would be cut while higher education funding remained untouchable by law.
“We’re handcuffing future General Assemblies,” Hembree said.
Hembree called for the committee to pump the brakes on the bill, which he called “the most profound and fundamental change in higher education” in years.
It’s the sort of radical change in college funding that the state’s flagship university has been calling for.
“We’re grateful to the members of the committee for supporting this bi-partisan bill,” University of South Carolina spokesman Jeff Stensland said in a text message. “It’s a big step toward making college more affordable and accessible for South Carolina students.”
USC President Harris Pastides was also an early supporter of the bill, publicly declaring that getting this bill passed was one of his main goals before he retires this summer.
Though the bill has progressed from a small subcommittee to the full Senate in just five days, lawmakers are all but certain to challenge the bill’s more controversial or less-developed provisions. One controversial provision would be to return to the tougher academic requirements (they were softened in the 2016-2017 school year) for receiving merit-based lottery scholarships, meaning fewer students would receive HOPE, LIFE and Palmetto Fellows scholarships. The money saved would go to the state’s underfunded need-based scholarship program, Sheheen said.
Another controversial proposal would allow colleges and universities to undertake minor construction projects, funded through housing, bookstore, athletic, food or other revenue with less oversight than major projects funded by tuition or tax dollars.
The state’s higher education oversight body, the Commission on Higher Education, “supports the concept,” but “like a number of the senators . . . (there are) a number of issues that need to be ironed out,” said CHE interim-executive director Mike LeFever.