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Board of Regents: Idea Whose Time Has Come for S.C.?

A consensus could be developing that something’s got to give with South Carolina’s higher education system.

But what, if anything, might come of a movement to reform the system is an open question.

As the fall semester begins at colleges across South Carolina, tuition at state-supported schools continues to increase to unprecedented levels.

Many of the institutions continue to send registered lobbyists to the State House despite a state law intended to eliminate taxpayer-funded lobbying.

And the state’s mishmash of publicly supported, four-year institutions continues to operate as silos, each school pursuing its own goals under its own board without a coordinated governing body overseeing the universities.

“In the absence of guidance, research shows that institutions, through their boards of trustees, have focused on parochial goals rather than state-wide needs,” says a report released in November by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and The Nerve’s parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council.

“Programs often overlap from institution to institution,” the study continues, “at a time when both technological advances and limited state resources call for creative coordination and consolidation.”

In the report, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) calls for South Carolina to overhaul the structure of its public higher education system.

ACTA does not specify how, but points out that about half of the states operate under a consolidated governing structure, often referred to as a board of regents.

Georgia and North Carolina are among those states, according to research by the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit, nonpartisan interstate compact based in Atlanta.

Instead of a board of regents in South Carolina, the Palmetto State has the Commission on Higher Education, which performs a coordinating role but has limited to no authority over individual schools.

In the 2011-12 legislative session, which ended in June, lawmakers from both parties sponsored bills to create a board of regents and abolish the commission: Reps. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter (H. 3025) and Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield (H. 3036).

Smith says he has sponsored such a bill numerous times and “absolutely” plans to reintroduce it next year. “It seems to me that we need to get our higher education system unified in moving toward one vision,” he says.

As it stands, schools compete for projects and limited resources, Smith says.

He says a nucleus of board of regents supporters is growing.

But opposition abounds.

“Obviously there’s a lot of interests who are opposed to it,” Smith says, “and it’s been a very difficult task to even have a discussion on this topic.”

University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides, Clemson University President Jim Barker and Medical University of South Carolina President Ray Greenberg exemplified that dearth of a discussion at a state Senate Education Committee hearing in February.

During the meeting, committee member Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, asked the presidents of the big three if they were going to talk about a board of regents. But as The Nerve reported, Pastides, Barker and Greenberg just sat there like the silence of the lambs, refusing to answer.

Smith, a USC law school graduate, says he has perceived a building boom at USC and other colleges in recent years. The campus of his alma mater pales in comparison to when he was in school, Smith says.

“And it just makes me cringe right now to see the student loans that kids are having to incur to get their higher education,” he says.

In absolute dollars, yearly tuition at USC Columbia for in-state undergrads has increased 81.5 percent in the past 10 years – from $5,778 in 2003-04 to $10,488 this year, according to Commission on Higher Education (CHE) data.

Similar or larger increases have occurred at virtually every two- and four-year state-supported school in South Carolina.

Brown says he sponsored his bill because he thinks a board of regents is good government. “Our CHE has no teeth,” he says.

The state’s higher eds are kingdoms with their own constituencies and caucuses, Brown says. “We certainly just have a tree that continues to branch, and instead of looking out for the best interests of the state as a whole, you’ve got a bunch of competing interests.”

When the 2011-12 legislative session began, Smith’s and Brown’s bills were sent to the House Education and Public Works Committee.

No subsequent action was taken on either one.

“I did not have a lot of encouragement or advocacy in favor of giving attention to those bills this past session,” says the committee chairman, Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens.

Owens says he is concerned about the rising tuition levels, the percentage of out-of-state students attending South Carolina schools, and certain decisions at the university level.

Asked about the political difficulties of going to a board of regents, Owens says he has discussed the topic with higher ed officials and other legislators, and he sees at least one way forward:

“It’s possible that a board of trustees could continue to exist (at each school) but would have less authority under a board of regents.”

As House Education chairman, Owens says his responsibilities include being open to ways of improving the system. “So I’m not going to be close-minded to any new concepts or ideas going forward,” he says.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford advocated for a board of regents throughout his two terms.

Gov. Nikki Haley has not followed Sanford’s lead on the issue.

But in her executive budget for this fiscal year, Haley proposed a new state higher education funding formula. It would allocate tax dollars to public institutions based on the size of their in-state student populations and, on a weighted basis, the schools’ performance in four areas:

  • Completion (30 percent);
  • Affordability and access (30 percent);
  • Educational quality (25 percent); and
  • Economic development and institutional mission (15 percent).

Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, introduced a joint resolution in March to implement a similar funding model. Gregory’s measure, S. 1397, cleared the Senate but expired in the House Education and Public Works Committee at the end of the session.

Even Pastides has joined the growing chorus of voices calling for funding reform.

“Unpopular tuition and fee increases are not a long-term remedy to remain competitive in the higher education marketplace,” Pastides wrote in an Aug. 15 letter sent to all members of the General Assembly. “This unfortunate situation no longer serves the interests of our state’s taxpayers, parents or students.”

Continuing, Pastides said:

“Reform – through performance, transparency, accountability and affordability metrics – can be a large part of the solution in providing critical and necessary state support for public higher education.”

So, say its many adherents, can a board of regents.

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

Accountability Budget General Assembly Higher Education Legislation Lobbying

Southern Regional Education Board Rep. Murrell Smith Gov. Nikki Haley Commission on Higher Education Jim Barker Harris Pastides Rep. Boyd Brown Mark Sanford Sen. Greg Gregory American Council of Trustees and Alumni South Carolina Policy Council Ray Greenberg