Concerned residents packed their way into the higher education summit set up by Gov. Mark Sanford last week to address the state of higher education in South Carolina.
At the forefront of the discussion was the incomprehensible rise of tuition rates at the state’s public universities. Since 1999 tuition has increased an average of 143.4 percent, compared with a 29.2 percent increase in inflation.
In 2009 the S.C. median household income was just over $42,400, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, with the average public university tuition in the state was $8,986, or 21.2 percent of the median income. The end result is that it is increasingly difficult for students to afford an education.
South Carolinians are demanding more transparency from colleges and universities. They want to know where their money is going. The question is, what would they find?
Between 2002-03 and 2007-08 five South Carolina universities registered an increase of more than 50 percent in administrative spending. At eight of the 12 South Carolina four-year public universities, increases in administrative spending outpaced increases in instructional spending.
For example, at the University of South Carolina’s flagship campus in Columbia, enrollment increased 2 percent and instructional staff 4.4 percent between the years of 1993 and 2007, but administrative staff jumped 94.7 percent.
This is not unique to South Carolina, either. Nationwide, public universities are spending more money than ever on administrators. In 2001 six public university leaders earned more than $500,000, but now 58 do, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Furthermore, the four-year graduation rate for public universities in South Carolina is only 38.8 percent while the six-year rate is just 60.5 percent. With these graduation rates and recent spending patterns, questions arise about the priorities of the colleges and universities.
So how can our public universities begin to save money and graduate more students who are adequately prepared to contribute to society?
Michael Poliakoff, executive director of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), said more needs to be done with less. Universities must begin looking into new ways to educate students effectively.
The most important aspect of change is collaboration within the university system and quality dialogue, he said. Poliakoff has found that when faculty and staff within a university collaborate on creating a solid core curriculum, money is saved and students are better educated.
But what is a solid core curriculum and how does that save money?
At Whatwilltheylearn.com, an ACTA website, former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis defines a general education as, “the unity of knowledge, not about distributed knowledge. Not about spreading courses around, but about making connections between different ideas. Not about the freedom to combine random ingredients, but about joining an ancient lineage of the learned and wise. And it has a goal, too: producing an enlightened, self-reliant citizenry, pluralistic and diverse but united by democratic values.”
A university with a strong core curriculum requires students to take at least one course in the following areas: Composition, literature, foreign language, U.S government or history, economics, mathematics, and natural or physical science.
Currently, no South Carolina university requires an economics course and only three universities require a broad survey U.S. history course.
Requiring students to take more general, fundamental subjects as part of their core curriculum cuts costs because it is much less expensive than offering specialty courses. It allows higher numbers of adjunct or graduate instructors to be employed under the guidance of a small core of senior professors, thus relieving the administration from hiring more expensive “specialized” instructors.
Additionally, Poliakoff said mandating a structured curriculum helps reverse low graduation rates because it produces learning communities.
There is a commonality between young college students. By beginning with a well-structured base of academic requirements, students are creating a solid knowledge foundation which prepares them not only for their more specified studies but also the real world, he said.
But before a university can begin making changes like this, it must be reminded of its original purpose to educate, Poliakoff added.
It is easy for university leaders and trustees to be sidetracked, focusing more on competing with other universities to have the most up-to-date research facilities or most-published faculty, but why not be the best at producing educated and culturally aware graduates?
This responsibility falls to the trustees who are the main fiduciaries of their universities. The buck stops with them. If they are not on the side of the students then who is, Poliakoff asked.
When asked for one piece of advice for those making the big decisions, Poliakoff said: “Recognize that everybody is in this together, and that the higher the level of cooperation and the lower the level of competition the more likely they are to come out of this with their strength intact and their quality high.”
Trevor Lightbody is a student at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Reach him at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106.