Over a 14-month span, the S.C. Commission on Higher Education rubber-stamped some $534 million in college building projects without adequate vetting, its leaders have told state lawmakers.
And, without more state dollars to hire analysts to help evaluate projects and programs, the commission says it will continue to provide sub-par oversight of South Carolina’s 33 public colleges and technical schools.
“If your will is to have somebody properly vet, we’re not doing the service that ... you expect,” commission chairman Tim Hofferth told a panel of House budget writers Tuesday.
The commission wants an added $1.85 million to beef up its operations. However, that request encountered push back in a contentious, three-hour hearing with House members.
Brian White, chair of the House budget-writing committee, said he “kind of laughed” when he saw the commission’s request.
Money is tight, the Anderson Republican said, and the state has other problems to address, including fixing its underfunded pension system and finding an answer to a 1993 school-equity lawsuit.
‘No real teeth’
In theory, the commission oversees South Carolina’s public colleges and universities. However, historically, the commission has been weak – by legislative design. Now, legislators have grown frustrated at the commission’s shortcomings, including its inability to curb rising college costs.
Friction between legislators and the commission rose to the forefront last year, when lawmakers ignored the commission’s objections to a stadium expansion at Coastal Carolina University.
On four occasions, the commission rejected the $32 million project as too expensive – the first time it had rejected a college proposal. Unfazed, Coastal went over the commission’s head to lawmakers. They approved the project, exempted Coastal from getting the commission’s approval and, then, overrode Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto.
“The CHE has been an entity with perceived authority over the state’s higher education system, yet it has no real teeth to provide the oversight,” Hofferth said.
This week, commission leaders presented lawmakers with three choices: Give us the money we need to do our job, change our job description to remove some responsibilities we have neglected, or do neither and live with the consequences.
The commission has 47 full- and part-time staffers and operates on a $361.4 million-a-year budget. However, almost all of that money simply passes through the agency on its way to S.C. colleges, including scholarship money sent to recipients. The commission spends less than $2.6 million on its staff and other operating expenses.
Can’t make ‘heads or tails of it’
Given its budget constraints, the commission currently fails to complete 58 of the 160 tasks it is required to do by state law, its leaders told lawmakers. Hiring enough employees to do all those tasks could take another $1.85 million a year, they added.
Among the neglected responsibilities: intensive reviews of colleges and their programs to measure the state’s return on investment, and data-driven vetting of capital projects, including classroom buildings and stadiums.
The commission also lacks the manpower to analyze tomes of raw financial data and draw conclusions about a college’s financial stability, its leaders said.
With that knowledge, the commission could alert legislators of disturbing trends, identify financial crises before they happen and ask tougher questions of college leaders looking to take on expensive building projects, said Hofferth, a Chapin businessman appointed to the commission by Gov. Haley in 2015.
“We have a lot of data,” Hofferth said. “The problem is it’s not collated in a manner that anybody can make heads or tails of it.”
The commission failed to detect snowballing financial problems at S.C. State University, for example. And Hoffert said the commission does not have the tools to detect potential financial problems at other schools.
Better oversight would help protect against waste and keep colleges from passing on the costs of unnecessary projects to students and taxpayers, Hofferth said.
“Somebody needs to do this, whether you give it to the CHE or whether the Legislature is going to do it,” Hofferth said. “Somebody needs to do it to protect the taxpayers and the families. ... If not, the costs are staggering.”
‘A little out of focus’
This week, lawmakers questioned parts of the commission’s budget request, including $1.3 million to hire 12 analysts.
White wondered aloud why the commission cannot get the information it needs by working closer with school leaders.
“All you’ve got to do is go have a conversation with folks. It’s free,” White said. “They’ve all got a 10-year plan.”
State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter challenged a request for $250,000 to hire lawyers. The commission could save money by using lawyers already on the state’s payroll, the Orangeburg Democrat said.
House members asked the commission to return with suggestions on how its responsibilities might be tweaked.
White said he would rather trim the commission’s list of responsibilities than give it more money.
For example, the commission could focus more on policing colleges’ academic programs and worry less about nonacademic building projects, he said. “Here lately, it looks like we’ve gotten a little out of focus.”