A bill that would temporarily freeze college tuition increases in South Carolina received a warm reception on Wednesday, the first time it came before a legislative committee.
“If members of this committee want it to pass, it will pass,” said Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, the chairman of the Joint Education and Finance Study Committee. Peeler said he is “very optimistic” the bill will pass by the end of the 2019 legislative session.
The bill, spearheaded by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, would create a $125-million trust fund to increase state funding of colleges to enroll in-state students. For their part, colleges would have to freeze tuition for a year and increase it no more than 2.75 percent each year after that.
The plan would be paid for with anticipated new revenue from online sales taxes. Also, state funding of higher education from the general fund would increase each year at the same rate as the general fund itself. For example, if the general fund budget increases by 4 percent, higher education funding also would increase 4 percent.
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“It seemed to me, it was time for a grand bargain,” Sheheen said. “South Carolina has the highest tuition rates in the Southeast and, last time I checked, the seventh-highest in the nation.”
While S.C.’s public colleges unanimously favored the bill and lawmakers of both parties voiced interest in the plan, there are a lot of details to work out.
For one, some think the tuition restrictions don’t go far enough.
“If you really want to talk about how to reform this... we have to talk about cutting tuition, not just freezing it,” said Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland.
USC President Harris Pastides said it makes more sense to get tuition growth under control first.
“Let’s cap it at first, then every two years, then three, then four,” said Pastides, who said he wants to see the act passed before he retires in July. “Then we’ll be rolling it back someday.”
Pastides, like many other college administrators throughout the state, has argued the only way for them to cut tuition is to gain increased funding from the state, which has fallen from 15 percent of the state’s general fund in 2000 to 7 percent in 2017.
“There is no way for us to eliminate enough programs, or to fire enough people... to freeze tuition,” Pastides said at the committee meeting.
For this school year, the University of South Carolina increased tuition 2.9 percent and Clemson University increased tuition 1.75 percent.
It’s unclear how a freeze in college tuition would affect a school’s balance sheet. Average tuition at four-year schools has increased every year since 1986, according to Commission on Higher Education data.
That’s part of the reason the Commission on Higher Education wants a provision requiring colleges to have a five-year plan for enrollment, tuition, expenses and revenue.
“I think most people would recognize that we (have) got to have some targets for us to get where we want to be,” said the commission’s interim executive director, Jeff Schilz. “And that doesn’t mean the target that’s out in year one is gonna be where it is in year.... five. It’s gonna change, but we need to have some kind of framework.”
The committee will meet next Wednesday, Oct. 23 at 1 p.m. in room 105 of the Gressette building.