Private College Students Forced to Ask Lawmakers for More State Funds?

March 5, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Spartanburg Methodist CollegeSpartanburg Methodist College freshman Stephen Long knew he’d have to take a lot of tests and complete plenty of other assignments as a college student.

But the 18-year-old Boiling Springs native says he never thought he would be pressured by the private, two-year college to write a letter to state lawmakers urging them to increase funding for a state tuition-grants program for private colleges in South Carolina, including Spartanburg Methodist.

The compulsory meetings were held during lunch hours on Feb. 7 and Feb. 8, according to Long.

“They sent e-mails out saying it was mandatory,” Long told The Nerve in a recent interview. “They put fliers up all over the school saying it was mandatory.”

Long said students were not allowed to compose their own letters. As students entered a room adjoining the dining hall they were given a set of instructions on how to write the letters, he said.

Long said he refused to write the letter and discreetly left the room.

Shortly after the incident, Long and friend Evan Mulch, chairman of the Upstate Chapter of the Republican Liberty Caucus, filmed a video in front of the campus detailing what happened.

“I’m trying to stop our state from spending more money,” said Mulch, 29, of Spartanburg, who describes himself as an entrepreneur with a consulting firm known as True Phase Solutions. “Personally, I’m for no government interference with education.”

The letter, a copy of which was provided to The Nerve, asks state legislators to “consider approving” a $1.6 million increase in the state tuition-grants program to “enable (students) to receive the maximum grant at $2,800 next year.”

The House Ways and Means Committee recently approved a $1.6 million increase in state funds for the S.C. Higher Education Tuition Grants Commission’s budget for fiscal 2014, which starts July 1. The full House is scheduled next week to begin debating the Ways and Means version of the state budget.

Under the Ways and Means version, the commission’s total budget next fiscal year would be $28.2 million, an increase of $2.3 million, or nearly 9 percent, over this fiscal year’s ratified budget, according to Office of State Budget records. And the total figures likely underestimate “other” funds, a review byThe Nerve found.

“I think the (tuition) grant is just fine the way it is,” Long said. “The school shouldn’t be forcing students to write these letters. And they certainly shouldn’t be telling students what to write.”

In an e-mail to The Nerve, Dan Philbeck, Spartanburg Methodist’s vice president for enrollment management, said the letter was a template for students to use as an example. He said the word  “mandatory” was used to “create a sense that it is a meeting (students) should not miss.”

“We sometimes use that term to get students to show up for meetings,” he said. “There are no ramifications if the student wishes not to participate.”

“We have been asking students to simply write a letter of thanks to their local state representatives for a number of years,” Philbeck continued. “Usually when we ask them to write a letter, the first thing they ask us is what do we say. We have a sample letter roughed out to give them an idea of some points they can mention if they so choose.”

The letters are a project of the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, a nonprofit corporation that dates its inception back to 1953, Earl Mayo, director of the Higher Education Tuition Grants Commission, told The Nerve in an email.

“(The organization) has conducted this ‘Appreciation Letter’ campaign annually for 25 years or more in conjunction with the state’s independent colleges, who SCICU represents,” he said. “It is designed to thank and express gratitude to our state legislators for their efforts and for their recognition of the need for South Carolinians to receive assistance to pay their tuition.”

“To my knowledge,” Mayo continued, “never has a student complained that they were asked to do this. And, interestingly, no student, which would include the student who complained about being asked to write an appreciation letter, has ever voluntarily returned any of the state’s funds that he/she received to help him/her pay his tuition,”  he said.

According to its website, the 43-year-old tuition-grants program is funded primarily through an annual appropriation by the General Assembly. Its purpose is to provide “need-based grant assistance” to eligible full-time undergraduate students attending nonprofit, private colleges in the state.

Twenty-one private colleges and universities participate in the program, including Spartanburg Methodist, which has 732 students this semester, college records show.

The amount of an individual student grant is based on several factors including family resources, the cost of attendance at the student’s chosen college, and state funding. Last fiscal year, 14,192 grants were awarded statewide, with an average grant of $2,278, according to the Higher Education Tuition Grants Commission’s annual report. At Spartanburg Methodist, 617 grants were awarded that year; the average grant at the college was $2,349, the report said.

The annual cost of attending Spartanburg Methodist, including tuition, fees, room and board, is $23,436, according to information from the college.

Mayo said about 63 percent of the state tuition-grants program funding comes from general state appropriations; 22 percent from lottery collections, which are classified “other” funds in the state budget; and 15 percent from the Children’s Education Endowment, also classified as other funds.

In addition to its nearly $26 million ratified total budget, the Higher Education Tuition Grants Commission started this fiscal year with more than $3 million in other funds carried over from the previous fiscal year, Office of State Budget records show. State funds make up about $22 million, or 85 percent, of  this fiscal year’s total ratified budget, with the approximately $4 million balance in “other” funds, those records show. Next fiscal year’s proposed $28.2 million total budget under the Ways and Means version shows roughly the same percentage breakdowns.

But the Ways and Means fiscal 2014 version likely underestimates the agency’s carryover, endowment  and lottery receipts, a review by The Nerve found. Last fiscal year, for example, the commission’s total ratified budget was $27.3 million. But the actual total 2011-12 budget was $32.6 million, which, before the $3 million transfer into this fiscal year, included nearly $7.8 million in lottery proceeds, and about $4 million in endowment and $1.9 million in carryover funds, according to a set of state budget records known as the detail base budget or “the brick.”

In contrast, last fiscal year’s ratified budget by the General Assembly projected $5.1 million in lottery proceeds and a $561,526 loss in Children’s Education Endowment funds.

Despite the taxpayer cost, Mayo believes that tuition grants are a wise investment by the state.

“The more highly educated our citizenry, the better we are as a state, and the better the state will be economically,” he said in his written response.

“Since the inception of the Tuition Grants Program, if every Tuition Grants recipient had attended a public college, instead of receiving a grant from the state to assist them with payment of their tuition at an independent college, the state would have paid out over $800 million more in state subsidies to public colleges, Mayo continued.

“Additionally, the state would have had to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funds for more faculty, more staff, more classrooms, and more dormitories during that time to accommodate Tuition Grants recipients attending a public college.”

Philbeck said the tuition-grants program benefits the students, not the college.

“The students take these grants to whatever private college they wish to attend,” he said. “In the case of Spartanburg Methodist College, because we are a two-year college, half of the students who end up writing the thank you letters will not be returning to SMC for the Fall 2013 semester because they either graduate as sophomores or transfer to a four-year college without graduating (from SMC).”

Long sees the situation differently, however, when it comes to the letter-writing campaign that he contends was forced on students.

“They’re being forced to write for an increase they’re not going to benefit from,” he said. “In fact, it will hurt them because they’re going to be paying higher taxes once they get into the workforce.”

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.