South Carolina deserves honest, full debate on higher education

November 7, 2010 

Higher education is a much-discussed topic. We believe there should be a genuine conversation, focused on outcomes South Carolina should expect from its universities -- opportunities for young people, jobs for our citizens and solutions to problems facing our communities. We encourage Gov.-elect Nikki Haley to lead such a conversation.

That conversation shouldn't start with the premise that higher education is "broken." Let's start by recognizing what is working.

First, higher education is affordable: South Carolina has a different model for funding higher education -- LIFE Scholarships and Palmetto Fellows. This program was intended to keep our brightest students in-state and make college more affordable. It has accomplished both of those goals -- and another. State colleges and universities have enhanced academic quality so that we can compete for those students and their lottery scholarship funds.

Second, higher education is accessible: State colleges and universities are educating more South Carolinians than ever.

Enrollment at state colleges and universities has grown by 30 percent over the past 10 years. Clemson and USC set new records for applications this year. More importantly, degrees awarded have increased by 26 percent since 1998-99 -- largely because of public institutions. More South Carolinians are recognizing that higher education leads to good jobs and a healthier economy.

Third, higher education is contributing to economic development: Universities can be powerful engines for economic prosperity, and the governor should consider us allies in rebuilding the state's economy. The General Assembly recognized this essential role of higher education when it offered incentives to attract intellectual capital through endowed chairs, build facilities and upgrade technology at the three research universities. Those programs are yielding returns on investments.

Jobs at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) now total 675 with an average salary of $70,000. New private partners have announced an additional 1,700 jobs. Thousands of people stand to benefit from education and research at CU-ICAR that could lead to safer, more fuel efficient, less polluting vehicles. USC, through Innovista and its commercialization efforts, has graduated 27 companies. The average salary in those companies is $63,000, and the incubator, with 66 companies, has helped create 721 jobs. Innovista's buildings are now filling with labs and offices for the Centers of Economic Excellence Programs endowed chairs, catalysts for attracting new investment to the state. This is what research universities do for our state. They don't talk about jobs -- they produce jobs.

Rather than dismantle what's working in higher education, let's focus on what's not: multi-layered approval processes that add costs, regulatory policies that don't work for universities, and unfunded government mandates as opposed to true accountability for tax dollars.

Of our new governor, we ask:

  • Visit our campuses and talk to our faculty and students. We can be more productive if we have a seat at the table when decisions about higher education are made.

  • Give us the tools to manage budget cuts and thrive as more independently funded public institutions. Meaningful regulatory reforms can help make up for lost state funding by cutting operating costs without reducing service or accountability.

  • Support a capital bond bill when economic conditions are right. Aging classroom facilities and infrastructure -- coupled with increasing enrollment -- threaten the quality of education. Unlike neighboring states, South Carolina has not passed a capital bond bill for college in 10 years. A gubernatorial endorsement would help ensure that we address this critical need and make us competitive.

    Haley will have a very full agenda as she works to create jobs, stabilize the state budget, and articulate a clear vision for South Carolina's future. Higher education stands ready to be engaged partners.

    James F. Barker is president of Clemson University. Harris Pastides is president of the University of South Carolina.

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