Education can change a person’s destiny. It certainly changed mine.
I grew up up in Indiana, and both sides of my family worked in the steel industry. My Dad was the first in either family to attend college, and through him, I saw the value of education and the advantages that came with it. I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps, so I set my sights on college. This was, without question, the best investment I have ever made.
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In theory, education is the great equalizer: It’s available to everyone, regardless of where you live or what your parents and grandparents do for a living. The promise is that with education and hard work, you can be anyone or anything you want to be. The reality, however, is that too many students are faced with two bad choices: Give up the dream, or accept a crippling load of debt.
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Nationally, education costs have outpaced other costs of living. From 1978 to 2012, food costs rose by 244 percent, health care by 601 percent, and college tuition and fees skyrocketed by 1,120 percent. The story in South Carolina is sadly the same. Over the past five years, the average in-state tuition has increased by nearly 13 percent at our four-year public colleges and by nearly 14 percent at our two-year and technical colleges. South Carolina has the eighth-highest average tuition and fees in the nation, and our student-loan debt is above the national average. These unsustainable costs are pricing S.C. families out of higher education.
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The truth is that education is expensive, and it’s hard work. If you want it, you have to be willing to put some skin in the game. That’s the way it should be. It should not, however, be out of reach for ordinary South Carolinians. Your investment should also produce a reliable return. Anyone who is willing to work hard should be able to use a certificate or diploma to land a solid job. All too often, graduates end up working for minimum wage while carrying massive student loans. That makes it hard to buy a house and start a family, to pursue the American dream.
Every tuition or fee increase means more students lose the chance to fulfill the dreams of their parents. All parents want a better future for their kids than they had, but 48 percent of young adults ages 18-34 believe their generation will be worse off than their parents. We shouldn’t accept that fate for our children.
At the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, we’ve spent the past six months taking our agency apart, looking at what we are doing, what we should be doing and how we can best serve the citizens of this great state.
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We have turned our focus to one job: ensuring that higher education in South Carolina is accessible, that it is affordable and that it offers academic excellence. Access, affordability and excellence is the North Star by which we navigate. In recommitting ourselves to S.C. families, we believe our efforts should be marked by competence, transparency and accountability. We have a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm, and we firmly believe that — if given the tools — we can help our state provide world-class academic programs in a fiscally responsible manner.
Some of our colleges and universities will welcome this renewed emphasis on developing partnerships and building accountability. Others may be concerned about how this will affect their authority. That won’t stop us from slowing down runaway tuition and fees. Instead of focusing on the interests of individual campuses, we should all be working arm in arm to improve our state’s economic future by ensuring that the academic programs we offer are exceptional, relevant and affordable. We should be working together for the greater good.
We invite you to speak up about the need for coordination and accountability in higher education. Together, we can make access, affordability and excellence more than a slogan.
Mr. Hofferth is a Chapin businessman who chairs the Commission on Higher Education; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.