Hicks column: Higher education has an unsustainable model, and unattainable for many


Fall semester college tuition is due, so you know what to do: Take last year’s bill and add a few hundred bucks.

It’s clockwork.

This year, Clemson raised its rates 1.75 percent. The College of Charleston is up 2.1 percent and the University of South Carolina tuition increased by 2.9. Of course, housing and food costs are up, too.

This is a trend that threatens to price all but the richest folks out of the market. Let the Commission on Higher Education scare you with a few statistics:

Since the mid-’80s, the state’s housing price index has risen 130 percent, health insurance costs are up 266 percent and median income has only grown by 85 percent.

Over that same stretch, the price of college has gone up 761 percent.

That’s ridiculous, and it’s unsustainable.

The CHE has been hosting town hall meetings across the state, drumming up support to influence colleges — as well as politicians — to fix this antiquated system before it goes the way of Blockbuster.

“I spoke to a woman in Spartanburg who told me she got out of college $14,000 in debt,” says CHE Chairman Tim Hofferth. “Her son just finished his first year of college and already has $24,000 debt.”

If this doesn’t change, college graduates are doomed.

The bill comes due

These days, South Carolina has the highest college tuition in the nation when it’s measured against the state’s average household income.

Some graduates are finishing college with $70,000 to $100,000 in debt that most of them will struggle to repay.

Why is this? The colleges and universities say it’s because the state cut funding to higher education during the recession and never restored it. Which is true, although lawmakers increased spending this year.

Clemson officials point out the University of Georgia gets 26 percent of its bill paid by the state. Most South Carolina universities get about 10 percent of their budgets from the state.

That’s technically correct, but a little misleading. As CHE Executive Director Jeff Schilz notes, a university’s percentage of state funding is going to drop dramatically when a school increases its budget from, say, $70 million to $170 million in only a few years.

It’s just math.

Now, some of that increased spending is due to decades of deferred maintenance, but much of it is the result of crazed building sprees and the addition of new programs. Many colleges are spending like drunken sailors, and the cost factors into the only place it legally can: tuition costs.

The CHE, which oversees 33 public colleges and universities, has tried to persuade these schools to coordinate better. Not every college needs a law school, or a medical school, or an engineering program.

But too many boards of trustees are running their institutions like a business, trying to be all things to all people. They add new programs without cutting back on programs where there’s declining enrollment.

And when the bill for all this comes due, the students pay.

The crisis is here

When the state set up the Education Lottery, students with a B average got a scholarship that paid their full tuition.

Since then, tuition has gotten more expensive with those scholarships than it was before the program existed. Now South Carolina students have the eighth-highest average of student debt in the nation.

As Hofferth notes, that is not helping the state’s workforce — which is one thing these colleges are supposed to be turning out. It’s hard to fill jobs in this state when a prospective teacher comes out of college with that much debt and is offered a $32,000 starting salary.

Times are changing, and the Commission on Higher Education argues colleges and universities aren’t changing with them.

A college degree was supposed to be a person’s ticket to a better life, and the CHE can outline myriad problems in this complex situation. For instance, the numbers of first-generation college students and minority students are down.

Much of that goes back to the rising cost of tuition.

So when folks write those fall semester tuition checks, it might be good to also write a letter to the school — and state politicians — about the need to rethink the entire system of higher learning.

Politicians only respond to crises, and the CHE argues that higher education has been in one for years.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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