Lawmakers halt campus construction in effort to rein in tuition hikes

COLUMBIA -- State lawmakers put construction projects at some South Carolina public colleges on hold Wednesday as a way to force the schools to lower tuition costs.

It is not clear how the University of South Carolina Beaufort will be affected.

The state Budget and Control Board voted unanimously to suspend capital projects at colleges that have raised tuition above the national norm. The vote applies to more than a dozen colleges: four-year schools that have raised tuition for in-state students more than 7 percent, and two-year schools where in-state tuition increased more than 6.3 percent -- rates set in the Higher Education Price Index.

The University of South Carolina Beaufort raised tuition by 7.5 percent this year, said Lynn McGee, vice chancellor for university advancement.

The university has been working on a master facilities plan to accommodate growth and is waiting to hear from officials in Columbia on how future projects, including a planned expansion of student housing, will be affected, she said.

McGee said she believes a previously approved plan to finish the second floor of the university's library to add classroom and faculty offices will be allowed to be completed.

The Technical College of the Lowcountry will not be affected by the vote, spokeswoman Leigh Copeland said.

State Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a budget board member, said he wanted to send colleges a message that "families are hurting. People are losing their homes and have lost their jobs" and can no longer afford to fund their children's college education.

Treasurer Converse Chellis said he understood lawmakers' attempt to force colleges to cut costs, but he worried about killing construction jobs in a state suffering with high unemployment.

The board exempted projects funded through private donations. Colleges could get projects on track by promising to drop tuition below the inflation index next semester. Leatherman said that could happen at any time, so the vote doesn't have to stop projects.

The colleges affected include Clemson University. The biggest tuition jump was at the College of Charleston, where costs increased by $1,326.

According to the Commission on Higher Education, tuition rates at four-year public colleges have risen between 4.4 percent and 14.8 percent this year compared to last, and between 2.2 percent and 12.7 percent at two-year schools.

The meeting comes a day after Gov. Mark Sanford's higher education summit. Though it was supposed to jump-start discussions on how to make college more affordable, even Sanford, who serves as the budget board chairman, acknowledged little was accomplished. College officials and Sanford couldn't even agree on basic revenue and spending numbers.

McGee said most construction projects at USCB are funded locally, with help from Beaufort and Jasper counties or through private donations. With the exemption of a maintenance facility provided by the state, all of the buildings on the Hilton Head Gateway campus have been built with local funding on donated land, she said.

McGee said the university has been careful to build incrementally. Declining state support -- not irresponsible building -- have caused the tuition increases, she said.

Over the past three years, cuts in state funding have reduced by 50 percent the amount of state support USCB receives, according to the university's website. Despite this year's tuition hike, USCB still has the lowest tuition rate among public four-year institutions in South Carolina, McGee said.

McGee said the suspension on building projects doesn't take into account a school's specific needs. She said USCB has grown by 10 percent every year since it became an accredited baccalaureate degree granting institution in 2004.

"If people come here, they'll see we've built well, with a commitment to the future, but not extravagantly, where we have empty buildings," McGee said.

The Associated Press and Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet reporter Kate Cerve contributed to this report.