Overhaul funding formula for S.C. universities, colleges

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 9, 2014 

Blame state lawmakers for the University of South Carolina Beaufort receiving so little state funding.

Economic downturns in the early 2000s and the subsequent Great Recession rattled the state's 33 colleges and universities that were dealt "across-the-board" state funding cuts by lawmakers.

As the state has recovered from the financial crises, the General Assembly abandoned its long-relied-upon funding formula that objectively determined the amount of state funding each school should receive. The formula, in place since 1996, considered factors such as a school's student enrollment, the types of programs and majors offered and whether the school offered two-year, four-year or other types of degrees.

Instead, lawmakers preferred to dole out money in a willy-nilly fashion to targeted colleges and universities, often relying on non-recurring funding sources. The result: wide variances in state support for the S.C. institutions.

The parity problem, as it has come to be called, means USCB received $1,903 per student last year compared with a statewide average of $2,770 for the state's other teaching-focused public universities. Only Coastal Carolina, which received $1,658, is below USCB.

The good news is the Beaufort County Legislative Delegation will work this upcoming session, which begins Jan. 14, to get more money for USCB and hopefully bring it up to the state standard. There's good reason to believe this group of lawmakers can make it happen. Last year, they secured $1.2 million more for the school, giving it almost $1,000 more per student and improving its ranking to the second-lowest instead of the lowest institution in per-student funding for teaching-focused universities.

The bad news: All S.C. colleges and universities are vulnerable to lawmakers' haphazard way of funding public institutions. The disparity will continue. And some undeserving school will always be in the funding basement for no good reason.

Instead, lawmakers must develop a higher education funding formula that provides clear and objective factors that result in consistent and predictable funding levels.

Just exactly what the formula should take into account is up for debate. Gov. Nikki Haley has encouraged the creation of a formula based on performance measures rather than enrollment and program mix. Things like graduation rates and affordability might be part of such a formula.

Both a pending Senate and House bill require the Commission on Higher Education to work with public universities to make recommendations for a revised funding system.

The Commission on Higher Education submitted a report to the General Assembly just last week, encouraging the creation of a funding mechanism "that incorporates principles of consistency, predictability and sustainability."

Here's hoping our representatives heed the call to action.

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