Tuition Talks and a Voice of Reason at the SC Higher Education Summit

Christina Jeffrey

Higher Education Summit, Columbia, SC (September 28, 2010)

The Higher Education Summit at Midlands Tech in Columbia, SC, included a member of the NAS and a member of ACTA. That’s real progress for Columbia, which has seen more visits from Bill Ayers (Lecturer at the USC College of Education) than visits from Steve Balch. This meeting was called by Governor Mark Sanford to “start the discussion” about the rapid increase in tuition costs at South Carolina’s public institutions of higher learning. Tuition at the College of Charleston rose 15% this year. The Citadel went up 13%. The Medical College of South Carolina, USC and Clemson saw 7% increases.

The meeting was a gathering of stakeholders, with more people there to lobby than to learn.  Not only are tuition costs going up, but the state of South Carolina is facing a billion dollar shortfall in its operating budget; a fact studiously ignored by the champions of not merely politics as usual, but in some cases, more spending for higher education. The governor managed the frequent, if mostly indirect criticisms of his administration with great dignity and wit. In fact, the governor, faced with a mostly hostile audience, was coolly unflappable.

There were three formal presentations, including one by Michael Poliakoff of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. NAS members know him as a champion of liberal education and fiscal sanity. It was news to me that he has close ties to South Carolina. He reassured the audience that South Carolina is not alone in the challenges facing the State. He called for greater emphasis on core learning and instruction-related spending and less on administration. All three included charts and graphs which were ignored by the other participants, but made to order for statistics-loving Sanford, who made frequent reference to them during the two hour meeting.

For a good summary of the three formal presentations read Anna Mitchell’s report in the Anderson Independent Mail.

Besides the presenters, participants included a panel of legislators and office holders. One of these, Ken Wingate, the chairman of the Higher Education Commission, seemed miffed that there was no advantage to being on the panel with the governor, who called on people as it suited him. No preference was shown to the assembled panel as he proceeded to call on the people who lined up to speak (like your faithful reporter), officials on the front row, and just random people who raised their hands from the floor.

Wingate defended administrators from charges no one was making and blamed legislators for refusing to move forward on a bill that would streamline the campus building review process. Several other spokesmen for colleges and universities complained about the costs associated with the many layers of review required before buildings, despite full funding, are able to be built.

Mr. Wingate said the bill in question was being held up on a technicality. It’s more than a technicality, said Senator Kevin Bryant, Chairman of the Committee on Higher Education; the colleges seem to have a problem with transparency. The Committee would like for students and others to be able to track where their money goes but there is almost universal opposition from Higher Ed to this proposal.

William T. Moore, V.P. for Finance and Planning at USC, gave a fact-filled explanation of why it is not correct to say that tuition is heavily impacted by capital improvements to the University. Ironically, however, his explanation that tuition only accounts for 6.9% of the cost of new projects nearly matches the amount that tuition has risen in the past year. These two figures may not be exactly congruent, yet they are so close to the same that his testimony seemed to give credence to exactly the opposite argument. He also claimed that USC’s building program helps the economy.

The state’s chief accountant, Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, who established South Carolina’s first government transparency website so people can see how public money is spent, and has encouraged similar transparency by local governments, spoke to the importance of transparency, less spending, and lower costs for citizens. He also called on the colleges and universities to help the state with the kind of in-depth budget analysis that he says the state lacks the talent to perform.

Steve Isom, a prominent businessman and city councilman from Cayce, SC, praised administration officials (especially the Comptroller) for pushing transparency, while dismissing higher education’s claims to help the economy with its runaway spending. Isom wants the State to help the manufacturing sector, rather than higher education, as the real way to stimulate job growth.

Timothy Moultrie, a high school history teacher, expressed his concern that K-12 schools are gaming the system, for example, commanding teachers to give no grades lower than 60 or 70% in order to increase student chances for scholarships. Thus students are admitted to college unprepared and even with life scholarships. The money invested in their education is wasted. Not until a businessman at the very end of the meeting made reference to this comment did anyone acknowledge Moultrie’s concerns.

Elizabeth Moffley, who was defeated in the Republican run-off for Superintendant of Education, called for efforts to improve South Carolina’s dismal high school graduation rate of 55%. Another man, speaking directly from the back of the room, said Spartanburg District 7 has already failed his five year-old.

One articulate critic of Columbia’s approach to higher education was Clemson spokeswoman, Cathy Sams, who expressed dismay that Columbia does not share the University’s view that higher ed is the engine of progress in the state. Instead, she said, when she and other representatives visit the capitol, they often feel as though they are regarded as the enemy. This caused Senator Chip Limehouse, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, to ask her if he had ever treated her badly, and when she demurred, he called on the audience to answer that question. No one responded, so he went on to take at least partial credit for all of the spending in higher education over the last 15 years.

Clemson was quite well represented at the meeting: besides its spokesperson, Cathy Sams, there was a mom there to testify that 100% of entering students get scholarship assistance. On the other hand, Lexington resident Talbert Black expressed concern about rising costs and his son’s ability to achieve his goal to work his way through Clemson. He said his son had joined the Army Reserve to help earn money for college.

There was also a student spokesman from Clemson who hyped the University’s efforts to eliminate wasteful programs in order to focus attention and resources on those that were the most promising. He called it improving the quality of education. A second student government president from the College of Charleston complained that the governor never visited the campus and had never met with him. Sanford got a chuckle from the crowd when he responded that he had visited the Charleston campus frequently and regretted he’d never bumped into the student president.

At the end of the program, college presidents in attendance were asked by the governor to address themselves to one thing that is or could be improving higher education – here are the responses from each institution in attendance:

Comments from College Presidents

Francis Marion – all 34 institutions are talking about sharing resources and cost-savings and the problem of parity, that is, the factually-based complaint from newer institutions that they are funded more poorly than older ones;

Coastal Carolina – there is a problem when money is raised by the local community for Coastal Carolina, as Horry County does with its 1% dedicated sales tax, but it takes 18 months to get approval to spend the funds;

The Citadel – is concerned that the old social contract between government and higher education has dissolved and a new one needs to take its place with the business community included;

Midlands Tech – Don’t cut off access to higher education for our students;

College of Charleston – Divisions are cost-saving and reporting them to the Board of Trustees;

Horry Technical College – Five layers of approval for projects is too many.

In Conclusion

The largest universities, Clemson and USC, came loaded for bear and in no mood to talk about cost-cutting strategies. They defended their tuition and spending priorities and argued with the governor about whether state scholarships should count as part of the per capital cost of educating students (if I understood the argument). According to university spokesmen, the governor is counting scholarship money twice in figuring costs. Two of the college presidents addressed cost cutting but no one of them mentioned the huge budget shortfall or proposed any strategies to deal with it.

Mr. Wingate, the governor’s appointed chairman to the Commission on Higher Education, was particularly defensive about any criticism of higher education. One observer wondered if he might be suffering from a form of “Stockholm Syndrome” stemming from his identification with the institutions he’s been appointed to oversee. The people he deals with are good and honest people; therefore, he does not want to see them harmed by criticism or reductions in pay or programs. Richard Nixon called it “going native.” These analogies may be overly simplistic, but there was something unseemly in the chairman’s apparently excessive defense of Sanford’s critics.

Indeed, even those who agree with Mark Sanford that the system is bloated are not willing to charge administrators with greed or corruption. They are good people, but, to paraphrase James Madison, they aren’t angels and therefore need real oversight. The state is short a huge percentage of its budget and either the colleges will have to make cuts or the General Assembly will have to. Raising tuition again would be very inadvisable in this poor state hard hit by the recession. The lack of attention to this problem was surprising; the fact that the money crunch required addressing was lost on the big universities. They either could not see or did not want to see this elephant in the room, no matter how often Sanford referred to it.

For your reference, I have included below the statement I prepared for the meeting and submitted to the governor. Unfortunately I had to abbreviate it because of the time constraints, but I think I communicated that there is an Association of South Carolina Scholars willing to help the state with education problems.

Statement Submitted to Governor Sanford

My name is Christina Jeffrey; I represent the National Association of Scholars (the NAS). I serve as a Board member and as President of the SC Association of Scholars.

The NAS exists to uphold the primary purpose of higher education that is to pass on to students the wisdom and culture of our civilization and to prepare them to know, understand and contribute to that civilization. We are committed to rational discourse as the foundation of academic life in a free and democratic society and work to strengthen the integrity of scholarship and teaching. Because our members include professors, graduate students, independent scholars and college administrators, we share the concern of the governor and so many other people that costs are outstripping the ability of parents and students to pay.

Recently, the NAS president took up this subject in an acclaimed and substantive article entitled “The Bubble: Higher Education's Precarious Hold on Consumer Confidence by Peter Wood.”

Dr. Wood is concerned, as we all should be, with the rising cost of tuition, and presents the pros and cons of our expensive education system. He acknowledges the great value of the kind of higher education we have all come to value, the ability of colleges and universities to adapt and innovate, and the fact that up to now, parents and students have shown a willingness to absorb the costs almost without complaint.

But people make similar arguments for every bubble; certainly we heard them as housing prices rose and rose. But like housing, the cost-spiral in higher education over the last several decades was not warranted by improvements in actual education. In fact, President Wood points out, it was driven, like the housing market was driven, by federal subsidies. In South Carolina, we have also had the benefit of state scholarships, another form of subsidy, to the point that some families could think of college as a cost-free, risk-free investment; and colleges came to compete for subsidized students with more and more elaborate and expensive amenities, with "atmospherics rather than academic substance."

There are many proposals to provide students with more affordable and more appropriate post-secondary options (for example, see Charles Murray's Real Education (2008). We do not believe there is any shortage of good education ideas in the marketplace, but there are also many state-sanctioned obstacles and stakeholders who oppose competition of any sort.

If South Carolina can lead the way in reforming higher education, we will all benefit from success in this area, even more than if we succeed in getting our universities recognized as great research institutions. As wonderful as that would be for our prestige, excellent, affordable education will help our people and the state as a whole even more.

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