South Carolina is one of the most expensive states in the Union to go to college.
That’s the conclusion of a state-by-state comparison of collegiate sticker prices – averaging listed tuition prices by all public four-year colleges in a state – by the personal finance site Simple Thrifty Living.
“If you look at in-state and out-of-state tuition, it’s in the top 10 for both,” said David Cusick, a market analyst. “For in-state public university cost, it (South Carolina) feels more in line with New England than the Southeast.”
That cost is a red flag for higher education.
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Facing the prospect of heavy student debt and the reality of declining state support, some worry the high cost could turn some S.C. students off from attending college.
The negative impact of South Carolina’s high college costs is magnified by the relatively low incomes of Palmetto State parents. Tuition, fees and the cost of college housing can eat up 45.6 percent of the median annual income of a Palmetto State resident – the highest amount in the country, based on federal income data.
Indiana and Vermont tie for second place, at 45.1 percent of the median income. In nine other states, a college education costs more than 40 percent of residents’ median income, including seven Southern states – Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia.
But by other measurements, South Carolina is unlike those Southern neighbors.
South Carolina’s average in-state tuition rate is $12,610, based on numbers from the Palmetto State’s 13 public, four-year institutions that are compiled by the College Board.
That is the ninth highest in-state cost in the country, right behind Massachusetts’ average of $12,730. It’s $5,000 higher than North Carolina, $4,000 higher than Georgia and double the cost of Florida. All are wealthier states than South Carolina.
It will cost you even more if you are an out-of-state student attending a S.C. public college, even compared to other states. The average out-of-state student pays $31,350 a year to go to a S.C. college – a little less than the $32,590 they would pay to go to school in California.
Georgia charges $26,760 to an out-of-state student, North Carolina charges $24,520 and Florida charges $21,880.
South Carolina’s colleges and universities admit their tuition rates have climbed upward in recent years. They blame the Great Recession and the state budget cuts that followed it.
S.C. taxpayer funding of higher education is 37 percent lower than in 2008, the fourth-largest cut in the country. As a result of those cuts, the average tuition at a four-year college in South Carolina is $2,247 higher, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“The money to provide an education to our students has to come from somewhere,” said University of South Carolina spokesman Wes Hickman. “And as a matter of policy, the burden has shifted from the state to our students and their families.”
In 2008, state money made up 21 percent of USC’s budget. Today, it is just 10 percent – making S.C. taxpayers only the fifth largest source of money for the university.
At the same time, USC “has been forced to absorb $77 million in unfunded mandates in health care and pension costs ... passed by the state, but that have not been funded,” Hickman said.
Tim Hofferth, chairman of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, says S.C. colleges need to take a closer look at their operations in light of their rising costs.
“Before you talk about more funding from the state, you have to ask how we right-size our universities,” he said.
He cites a recent report from the Moody’s credit agency that says higher education has reached its “maximum elasticity” in tuition rates, meaning institutions are charging as much as they can without driving down enrollment.
Now, Hofferth said, “Even a middle-class family will struggle to send their son or daughter to college without burdening them with debt, if they can send them at all.”
Hofferth says the state should incentivize institutions to “produce the right outcome for taxpayers this many engineers, this many nurses.” Some institutions also may need to be consolidated or phased out, he said.
Hofferth also recommends that more college “core” classes be made available to high school students at an affordable rate, allowing them to get a jump on their higher education so they can hold down the cost.
“You run the model, and that can save a family between $50,000 to $70,000,” he said.
USC wants to work with S.C. lawmakers to establish a “sustainable, fair funding model” for colleges, Hickman said. It also wants to eliminate regulatory burdens and create a state needs-based aid program “that would serve low-income residents in a more effective way.”
Despite the $12,000-plus sticker shock, the average in-state student pays less than $6,000 a year out of pocket in tuition to attend USC – thanks to lottery money and student aid, Hickman added.