USC’s ‘On Your Time’ Will Cost S.C. Taxpayers Big Time

April 8, 2013

Investigative Reports

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e97fcf74f1d70b918c1fa0b0cb124ceaApparently, it takes a village to graduate University of South Carolina students “on time.”

The S.C. House’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1 allots $2.5 million to the state’s flagship university for its new “On Your Time” graduation initiative, conveniently set to launch this summer.

The goal is to shorten the time it takes students to receive an undergraduate degree by offering a third full semester during summers. Many USC students take six years to graduate, records show.

“Why should students graduate on our time? We want you to graduate on your time,” so says a university press release. “Your time might be three years. We’re going to introduce a full summer semester with required courses and a full array of courses to make South Carolinians able to graduate in a more affordable way and on their time.”

The release said by completing their degrees quicker, students will reduce their overall tuition costs and loan debt.

“By redefining the traditional university academic calendar, providing flexibility and maximizing assets, USC will become a model for colleges and universities in the state,” according to the press release.

If other public colleges and universities were to follow USC’s lead, however, the total bill to state taxpayers could easily reach into the tens of millions annually.

The proposed $2.5 million for USC for fiscal 2014 would come out of this fiscal year’s projected general-fund surplus of approximately $160 million. That is non-recurring money earmarked to fund what is described as a recurring program.

USC doesn’t publicize that it has accumulated huge budget reserves in recent years. The Nerve in January reported that the university started this fiscal year with $361.1 million in “unrestricted net assets” – nearly triple the amount that school recorded in fiscal 2003.

To put it into some context, the $361.1 million reserve amount would be enough to cover the proposed $2.5 million in state funding for the “On Your Time” program for at least 144 years in today’s dollars.

And it’s likely not a coincidence that the university’s reserves have fattened at the same time tuition has skyrocketed. Since fiscal 2004, tuition and fees for full-time, undergraduate students at USC’s main Columbia campus have jumped nearly 82 percent to $10,488, according to S.C. Commission on Higher Education (CHE) records.

Wes Hickman, USC’s chief spokesman, did not respond to several messages left for him last week by The Nerve. Shirley Mills, the university’s director of governmental and community relations and legislative liaison, declined comment when contacted by The Nerve, referring questions to Hickman.

In October, The Nerve reported that four-year graduation rates had hit incredible lows at the state’s public colleges and universities. USC’s main Columbia campus, for example, graduated just over half of its student population in four years, according to a CHE study that tracked freshmen entering college in 2005.

USC’s campuses in Aiken and Upstate each graduated barely 21 percent of its students during the four-year period, while the four-year graduation rate at USC’s Beaufort campus was just 8.3 percent, the worst rate in the study.

Public schools fared better when six-year graduation rates were analyzed. Clemson University topped the state in the CHE study with a graduation rate of 80.4 percent, followed by The Citadel at 70.3 percent and USC-Columbia at 70.2 percent.

The “On Your Time” proposal follows in the steps of similar graduation incentives implemented in at least 16 other states, according to Tom Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank in Austin.

Lindsay said several factors contribute to longer college tenures, including high tuition costs, poor academic advisement and required courses offered irregularly.

Last year, Rep. Dan Branch, chairman of the Texas House Higher Education Committee, introduced a bill called “Student Success-Based Funding,” which would raise the ceiling from 10 percent to 25 percent of state funds to schools based on student success, which includes graduation rates, said Lindsay. The most recent version of the bill amends legislation first passed in 2011, which set the ceiling at 10 percent, he said.

“The goal is to incentivize public universities to graduate kids on time,” Lindsay said. “With (the bill), you can change university behavior.”

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter