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Senator Introduces Bill to Cap Tuition Hikes

Describing tuition hikes at public colleges as tantamount to tax increases, a state senator says it’s time to put some constraints on the schools’ ability to continue raising their tuition costs at household budget-breaking levels.

“For families whose children are going to college, that’s the equivalent of a tax increase,” Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, says of a state-supported school ratcheting up its tuition.

And it equates to a tax hike without legislative approval, Rose contends.

His response to address it: hammer time.

Rose is sponsoring a bill to impose a tuition cap on publicly funded colleges and universities in South Carolina. The ceiling would be a combination of the percentage increases in the state’s population and the consumer price index in the previous calendar year, or population plus inflation.

If a school violated the cap, its state funding would be reduced by a corresponding amount, “unless the increase is specifically authorized by the General Assembly,” the bill says.

To that end, Rose says he isn’t trying to prevent schools from raising tuition more than the cap; he just wants the Legislature to have the say-so on whether they can. “What I’m looking for is a permanent constraint,” the senator says.

Rose introduced his bill (S. 1193) on Feb. 8 and it was sent to the Senate Education Committee. Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, chairs the committee.

In both the House and Senate, committee chairmen wield great power over legislation that comes their way. That includes whether a bill ever sees the light of day in receiving a hearing.

In his case, Courson says he does not exercise that power to kill a bill by not scheduling a hearing on it simply because he might not agree with the measure. Rather, if a senator seeks an audience with the Education Committee on a bill he is sponsoring, he will get it, Courson says.

As of last week that had not yet happened with Rose’s bill, he says.

As to the substance of it, Courson says, “I have not decided which way I would vote, but I’m interested in hearing from both sides on it.”

There are, indeed, two sides to this issue.

On one side stand observers like Rose, who believe that state schools have increased their tuition at appalling rates while veering off mission and failing to tighten their belts.

From the other side resonate voices such as the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, which assert that the institutions are keenly focused on efficiency and it’s the Legislature that bears the blame for tuition hikes because of funding cuts.

Hard numbers and other evidence suggest that both sides might be right, at least to some extent.

First, tuition levels.

“There’s been an excessive rise in tuition,” Rose says.

That’s one way of putting it.

Virtually without exception, whether you’re talking the state’s three research universities or its 16 technical colleges, state-supported higher eds have jacked up their tuition costs at unprecedented rates in the past decade, Commission on Higher Education data show.

A few quick examples:

  • The University of South Carolina-Columbia – 102 percent, from $5,024 to $10,168.
  • Winthrop University – 126 percent, from $5,600 to $12,656.
  • Aiken Technical College – 70 percent, from $2,192 to $3,722.

In rounded figures, those numbers are in-state tuition and fees for the 2002-03 academic year and this school year. The increases were comparable for out-of-state tuition.

The hikes were somewhat less dramatic when accounting for inflation. Nevertheless, they have had a punishing impact on affordability and accessibility for South Carolina families, especially during the Great Recession.

At the same time, meanwhile, many state-funded schools have engaged in aggressive construction campaigns and questionable practices such as paying high salaries to State House lobbyists and pursuing speculative economic development projects.

“Many of the institutions of higher learning have had mission creep,” Rose says. “The people can’t afford all that.”

Countering those points, the Commission on Higher Education (CHE) argues that faltering state support, not mismanagement at the college level, accounts for the steep growth in tuition rates.

As a ratio of the state budget, state funding for higher education has dropped from 16.2 percent in fiscal 2001 to 11.2 percent this fiscal year, the commission says in a Jan. 18 briefing paper to the Senate Education Committee.

“A longstanding annual national survey on state fiscal support of higher education shows SC with the greatest decline … over five years (fiscal 2006 through fiscal 2011),” the paper says.

The commission also maintains that schools do work diligently to keep costs down, citing examples in its document. Among them: “Coastal Carolina and Horry Georgetown Tech are institutions in different sectors that share services, including security.”

Asked for the commission’s take on Rose’s bill, CHE governmental affairs director Julie Carullo said in an email:

“While the current commission has not considered the particular legislation filed recently that would place restrictions on tuition increases, CHE has in the past consistently stressed the importance of providing greater operational flexibility for our colleges and universities while ensuring appropriate accountability to the public.

“It has long been our belief that the boards of trustees are in the best position to make decisions about tuition.”

In its white paper the commission says this is the bottom line when it comes to state funding: “We have to be realistic about our attitude toward higher education as a state priority, both with respect to other areas of government and in comparison to other states.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

But it’s also hard to dispute the notion that colleges professing poverty while creating a new $135,000 lobbying job – as USC Columbia recently did – or violating state law by dishing out hefty pay raises without performance reviews – as the Legislative Audit Council says Clemson University did – might not sit too well with South Carolina taxpayers.

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

Budget General Assembly Higher Education Legislation Lobbying

Sen. Mike Rose University of South Carolina Sen. John Courson Clemson University S.C. Commission on Higher Education Legislative Audit Council Julie Carullo