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Report: S.C. Needs Higher Education Overhaul

From a troubled transportation center at South Carolina State University to a botched biomass plant at USC, South Carolina’s taxpayer-supported colleges and universities have pursued some costly misadventures in the recent past.

But these problematic projects, notably the University of South Carolina’s Innovista research campus, were largely unrelated to the schools’ traditional core mission – to educate young minds.

No, the undertakings instead were more related to economic development. But is that what publicly funded institutions of higher learning really ought to be about?

For students, parents, lawmakers and others, it is a key question when evaluating how the schools are performing their basic job. And, when it comes to that task, a new report says the colleges and universities have a lot of room for improvement.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA, prepared the report and released it last week in conjunction with The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council.

The report – titled “Prepared in Mind and Resources?” – explores the performance of the state’s public higher education system in three areas: cost and effectiveness, general education, and governance.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, in the rubble of a housing bubble that burst millions of American dreams, the report cites a disturbing development with respect to the cost of college in general.

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, describes the long shadow of college costs in an overview beginning the report.

“In the wake of stock market volatility and the crash of the housing market,” Neal writes, “there has been a growing concern that higher education is in a ‘bubble,’ with the cost of a four-year degree far outstripping the benefits of acquiring one.”

The report (download a copy of it here) focuses on eight of South Carolina’s 33 public colleges: the University of South Carolina campuses in Columbia, Aiken, Beaufort and the Upstate; Clemson University; Coastal Carolina University; South Carolina State University; and the College of Charleston.

“These institutions, taken together, represent not only the geographic breadth of the state but also educate the vast majority of undergraduate students who are enrolled at South Carolina’s four-year institutions,” the report says.

Overall, the study gives good marks to the eight campuses reviewed regarding freshmen retention and to the state as a whole in credit transferability.

But ACTA finds fault with South Carolina’s higher education system in several critical areas, particularly an increasingly crushing burden of college on household budgets and the governing structure of the system.

On its website, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni describes itself as “an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.” The group is based in Washington, D.C.

In its study, ACTA examined in-state undergraduate tuition and fees at the eight campuses from the 2005-06 school year to 2010-11, noting increases at all of them. The hikes, adjusted for inflation, ranged from a low of 18 percent at USC-Columbia to a high of 36 percent at the College of Charleston, according to the report.

Those numbers, however, do not tell the whole story.

Indeed, looking at a longer period of time – the past 10 years – shows a virtually across-the-board pattern of 100 percent-plus increases (in absolute dollar figures) at the state’s public institutions.

The S.C. Commission on Higher Education, the coordinating body of the state’s 33 taxpayer-supported colleges and universities, maintains the 10-year cost data on its website.

In an irony upside down enough to make any betting person feel unlucky, the runaway tuition hikes actually began a little earlier than a decade ago, coinciding with implementation of the S.C. Education Lottery.

The government-run gambling enterprise was packaged and sold as a way to make college more affordable for the people of the Palmetto State. But, coupled with steep reductions in state funding, the lottery has not had that effect. (For more on that, check out this Nerve story.)

Certain fiscal practices by the schools have not helped lighten the tuition load, either.

The ACTA report says administrative spending increased faster than instructional spending at six of the eight schools. USC-Beaufort and USC-Upstate were the exceptions.

The study also cites widespread underuse of classroom space, calling for the state to rethink college construction plans: “South Carolina should carefully consider how it may take full advantage of current resources before undertaking any expansion projects.”

On a big-picture level, the report points to potential improvements by way of the structure of South Carolina’s higher education system.

ACTA notes that state law calls for “a coordinated, comprehensive system” with “clearly defined missions.” This is spelled out in section 59-103-15 of the S.C. Code of Laws.

But the vision thing is lacking, according to the report, largely because each of the 33 schools is governed by its own board of trustees.

“In the absence of guidance, research shows that institutions, through their boards of trustees, have focused on parochial goals rather than state-wide needs,” the study says. “Programs often overlap from institution to institution, at a time when both technological advances and limited state resources call for creative coordination and consolidation.”

Putting it another way, the report says, “The understandable loyalty a trustee holds toward his or her home institution can create perverse incentives for institutions to duplicate programs rather than specialize.”

A process by which trustees are appointed also creates problems, ACTA concludes:

“The Legislature currently selects most college and university trustees, largely with regard to local geography. The practice of allocating trustee seats to politically-delineated districts bears little connection to qualities that make for effective trusteeship or statewide coordination.”

Because of these weaknesses, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni implores the state to overhaul the structure of its public higher education system.

ACTA does not specify how South Carolina should change it. But the organization does point out that about half of the states operate under a consolidated governing board system. Read: a board of regents.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford and other observers have long championed that idea for South Carolina. But the General Assembly has demonstrated no appetite for it.

And the institutions? Well, just ask their State House lobbyists how they feel about it.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.

Higher Education