McMaster proposes one-year freeze on SC college tuition and fees
Colleges have been saying it for years.
When state legislators increase funding to colleges, tuition stays down.
That’s the conclusion of a new report by State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
The report, which examined higher education enrollment, public funding, tuition and more in all 50 states from 2008-2018, found that as South Carolina and other states have restored state funding to public colleges and universities, tuition increases have begun to level off.
“As state funding has recovered, the need to increase tuition to provide operational funding for public institutions has also lessened in many states,” according to the report.
Though state support has increased, South Carolina still funds higher education at a lower level than before the Great Recession.
In 2008, the state provided $7,917 per full-time student compared to $6,053 in 2018, according to the report, which adjusted for inflation. Though the state still spent roughly $1,900 less per student in 2018 compared to 2008, it’s still a 24 percent increase over 2013’s funding, when the state provided $4,914 per full-time student, according to the report.
“What funding the colleges and universities lost as a result of the recession, they had to replace with increased tuition and fees,” said Mike LeFever, interim executive director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. “Finding a stable funding source is important to moderate or neutralize the need for annual tuition increases and insulate the funding stream from the disruptions caused by an economic downturn.”
South Carolina students have seen that effect on tuition first-hand. For the 2013-2014 school year, when state support was down, the University of South Carolina increased tuition by $342 from the prior year, according to commission data. But in 2018, when the legislature increased state support, USC increased tuition by $177, according to a previous article from The State.
“This study provides more evidence that the level of state support is directly linked to what public colleges and universities charge for tuition,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said in an email. “Last year, the university received additional funding from the General Assembly and as a result we were able to hold tuition increases to the lowest level in two decades.”
The report contests the nightmare scenario that says shrinking enrollment growth and soaring tuition would cause colleges to collapse or freeze-out all but the rich. Instead, enrollment growth stabilized between 2017 and 2018, although the growth will be slower than the great recession, the report says.
The report was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the report says.
S.C. lawmakers seem poised to offer the state’s colleges and universities increased funding in exchange for a tuition freeze. The House of Representatives, the Senate and Gov. Henry McMaster have all made such a proposal.
The most ambitious of those proposals is the Opportunity Act, spearheaded by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, which would dedicate online sales tax revenue toward creating a $125 million trust fund for higher education in exchange for a one-year tuition freeze and a cap on tuition increases after that.
“We are very encouraged that this year the governor’s budget as well as the House and Senate budgets provide funds specifically for tuition mitigation,” Stensland said. “Legislation like the Higher Education Opportunity Act also would limit any future tuition increases by providing a stable, dedicated source of higher education funding for years to come. That would be a huge win for South Carolina students and families.”