Lawton Mizell figured his fall tuition bill had to be a mistake.
Maybe the junior computer science major had signed up for too many classes or, perhaps the numbers had somehow gotten jumbled.
But when the Charleston native scoured the University of South Carolina’s website for an explanation for the new, $918-a-semester program fee on his bill, he found more bad news.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The $200-a-semester engineering school fee that Mizell paid as a freshman will be $1,209 a semester by the time he graduates. It is expected to rise again after he leaves.
“When I first found out about it, I was really upset,” Mizell said. “It’s such a large jump. You kind of feel powerless sometimes. They can pretty much put the fee down, and once the fee is approved, that’s it. It’s really hard to go back and change it.”
Academic fees are a fact of life on college campuses, including USC’s. All 16 USC colleges and schools tack on additional charges to tuition, many to pay for extra course- or program-specific costs.
But those fees are rising rapidly at USC’s College of Engineering and Computing, where – university officials say – efforts to revamp the college are costly.
A rising student-to-faculty ratio and outdated labs that embarrassed the college on prospective student tours must be addressed quickly, the college’s new dean says.
But the university does not have the money on hand to pay for improvements, USC officials say, blaming a significant decline in state support for the university since the Great Recession. About 10.5 percent of USC’s $1.5 billion budget this year comes from the state, down from 23 percent of USC’s 1 billion budget in 2007-08.
The state’s public colleges and universities have dealt with that decline in state support by raising tuition. But doing so has invited harsh criticism from the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
USC President Harris Pastides said charging fees for specific courses or programs is fairer than raising overall tuition.
“At some point, we’re looking at the true cost of providing an education to an engineering student as well as to a history major, for example, and trying to distribute those costs so you don’t bill everybody ... for the extra expenses in certain areas,” he said.
The College of Engineering and Computing’s freshman program fee was $200 a semester two years ago when Mizell enrolled. The following year, Mizell paid the higher, $504-per-semester fee for sophomores, juniors and seniors.
Now, the engineering college has raised its program fee for all students to $918 a semester, a figure that now also covers lab fees for students.
Incoming students will pay even more.
The state’s flagship university has plans to raise the fee to $1,209 a semester next year and, again, to $1,500 a semester – or $3,000 a year – for the 2018-19 school year.
The increases come as a shock to some engineering and computing students. Some were unaware of the planned fee hikes until being interviewed for this story.
“School is already expensive as it is,” said Ricky Morales, a 29-year-old computer science major from Roanoke, Va. “Not all of us have the luxury of having someone pay for school. Those of us who have to pay out of pocket get hit with a giant fee like this. It’s a tough pill to swallow. How are we going to afford it?”
Adding to the frustration for some is a sense of confusion about why the college needs the money – or how it would be used.
“No one really got a warning,” Mizell said. “No one was told the fees would be going up that much.”
The cost of doing business
The engineering students are not alone.
USC’s 2016-17 budget included seven pages of academic fees for the colleges and schools on its Columbia campus. The words “fee” and “fees” are mentioned at least 730 times in the budget.
USC tacks fees onto some classes – such as a $440 fee for “materials” in a keelboat sailing class.
Other fees are school- or college-wide, sometimes labeled “enrichment” fees on USC budgets with little explanation as to why they exist.
USC spokesman Wes Hickman said academic fees are meant to supplement the cost of providing an education in specific areas of study. Departments must apply to USC trustees to levy the fees and explain how they plan to use the money, he said.
Fee revenues can pay for faculty salaries or materials and equipment needed for instruction, he said.
But as USC’s engineering and computer students have learned, some fees are more painful than others.
They agree their college could use some work, citing the shoddy appearance of some labs and classrooms that still use chalkboards.
But they do not want to pay for the improvements themselves, especially as upperclassmen who might not be around to reap the benefits.
“We’re paying for stuff we won’t be able to use,” said Derwin Graham, a 21-year-old computer information systems major from Denmark, a rural town south of Columbia. “Who is going to use this stuff, the class of 2025?”
Turning it around
The College of Engineering and Computing’s new dean arrived in January 2016 with plans to get the college back up to snuff.
The college has the lowest student retention rates on USC’s campus, its officials say. Rapid growth in enrollment has led to a shortage of faculty. And a March 2016 report by the college lamented its place in recent U.S. News and World Report rankings.
USC’s graduate engineering program this year fell out of the top 100, into a tie for 105th, while its undergraduate program has hovered outside the top 100 since at least 2006, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Hossein Haj-Hariri, the new dean who formerly chaired the University of Virginia’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, said the college’s engineering labs are functional but out of date.
“Some of the departments had stopped giving tours of labs when parents and students come,” he said. “When you come to see an engineering department, you want to see a lab. If you don’t see those, that’s not a good start.”
The college has been underfunded for too long, unable to hire enough faculty to keep up with growing enrollment, Haj-Hariri said.
The college also has less money to spend on its engineering students than five similar engineering schools, according to a ranking the college included in its application for the fee increase.
The USC engineering school had $15,248 to spend educating each of its undergraduates, ranking last among six schools. Clemson University’s engineering program was ranked fifth with $19,282 to spend on each undergraduate.
“Engineering is expensive, demand went up, money didn’t go up in proportion, and here we are,” Haj-Hariri said, adding that USC leaders cannot significantly boost his college’s funding without making cuts in other departments.
Officials said the college would use the money to improve its labs; hire and retain enough faculty and instructors to reduce its student-faculty ratio to 21 to 1 from 26 to 1; hire more advisers, career counselors, tutors and academic support staff; and improve other programs at the college.
Haj-Hariri said the fee money will go to work quickly. The school will invest at least $500,000 annually into upkeep of labs and has plans to hire about 20 new faculty members this year, he said.
Underclassmen will be able to see a noticeable change before they graduate, he said, adding he does not foresee a need to raise the fee past $1,500.
“Quality of education year-over-year was going down because of lack of investment. Our labs are not what we are proud to show off. Our students really deserve better,” Haj-Hariri said.
“I’m sorry that the students and parents have to pay this extra fee, but this extra fee will be the difference of night and day. We will deliver an incredible education to these students.”
USC’s College of Engineering and Computing has raised its per-semester program fee to pay for what school officials say are much-needed improvements at the growing college.
College of Engineering
Per-course lab fee
* = Pending approval by USC’s board of trustees
SOURCE: University of South Carolina budgets