Higher education pushed to be more fiscally conservative

October 25, 2010 

Theodore Roosevelt, a president who was known for his no-nonsense approach to all challenges, believed that complicated problems in a large country could best be solved if public servants at every level stayed focused on the simple, pragmatic advice, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

Roosevelt's commandment has pretty much become the theme of public finance following the economic upheaval that has sent state budgets plummeting by billions in recent years.

During the past several months state leaders have wondered aloud whether South Carolina's colleges and universities have received that message given the fact that tuition hikes have occurred with great frequency in this state and at rates that commonly outpace regional averages. These increases come at a time when our families can least afford them. What's more, double-digit tuition hikes have coincided with announcements of ambitious, new, higher-education expansion projects. It is, therefore, no surprise that the subject of a higher-education building moratorium entered the public discussion.

Last month, I attended the State Budget and Control Board's meeting and heard testimony from the members regarding higher-education tuition increases. After much debate, the board stopped short of a total moratorium on new construction but instead imposed a moratorium that is contingent upon tuition increases. Basing their figures on a national inflation index, the board imposed a construction ban on all public four-year institutions that increase tuition by more than 7 percent and all public two-year schools with increases higher than 6.3 percent.

It is important to note that the prohibition does not apply to maintenance, projects necessary for the health and safety of students, buildings already under way or construction funded by private dollars. In addition, institutions that choose to lower their tuition costs to the required levels, can free themselves from this moratorium as well.

Up until now, higher education has been shielded from the impact of budget cuts by federal stimulus dollars. The rest of state government is already engaged in an arduous discussion about budget-cutting and cost-saving restructuring. Our institutions of higher learning must also take that painful inward look. They must reexamine their ballooning administrative costs instead of assuming that business as usual will be sustained by ever-increasing tuition rates and an endless flow of concrete and steel.

We must demand that our colleges and universities get their financial houses in order, but we must also have a firm commitment to the well-being of our higher education system, which is crucial to our state's prosperity. The comprehensive South Carolina Economic Development Competitiveness Act of 2010, approved by the General Assembly, provides our research institutions another means of staying on track towards long-term goals despite our short-term lean conditions.

The legislation allows the Centers of Excellence Matching Endowment that is funded from the South Carolina Education Lottery to better function as an economic development tool by authorizing one quarter of the endowment to be awarded in connection with significant business and industry capital-investment projects that are recommended by the secretary of commerce. The endowment is used to attract distinguished professors to endowed chairs at our research universities to allow our institutions of higher learning to become notable centers of research and innovation.

So long as proper stewardship is being provided for our tax dollars, higher education is an excellent investment fully in accord with Roosevelt's no-nonsense commandment. By doing what we can with what we have in our state's institutions of higher learning we can bring the whole world of knowledge right here where we are. Whenever we expand the horizons for our students, the notions of what we can do inevitably grow to be much more powerful and profound.

Rep. Shannon S. Erickson serves South Carolina House District 124 in Beaufort County. She is president of Lowcountry Building Blocks, Inc. and directs Hobbit Hill Preschools.

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