If you graduated from a four-year college in South Carolina and didn’t take a class on the U.S. Constitution, your degree is worthless, according to state law.
That law, which has been in place for decades, hasn’t been enforced, and many colleges aren’t following it. But some S.C. lawmakers want to change that.
The REACH Act, sponsored by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, would require all college students receiving a bachelor’s degree or higher to complete three credit hours of a class that includes reading and studying the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. An amendment to the law, proposed by Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood, would also require that class to include the Emancipation Proclamation and how slavery relates to the constitution.
The law would not apply to two-year colleges and technical schools.
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“I’m annoyed, and not just a little annoyed, that universities don’t think they have to follow the law,” said Sen. Shane Massey, an Edgefield Republican who sits on the Senate Education Committee. “It doesn’t matter to me whether the student is studying chemistry or nursing. We’re all citizens.”
The bill, which Grooms said is designed to modernize the old law, would actually reduce the amount of time colleges need to spend teaching students the constitution; the current law says colleges must teach for “one year,” and this bill says “three credit hours.” The bill would also do away with the required, yet also unenforced, “loyalty oath” all S.C. college students are supposed to take before graduation.
“Without modernization, the strict application of (the law) would create an academic logjam, delaying a student’s timely graduation and burdening the student and parent with additional tuition and costs,” University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides said in a 2014 letter to Grooms.
Coastal Carolina University follows the law, Grooms said. Winthrop University said Friday that has a “Constitution Competency” that is required of all students as a part of their graduation requirements. They fulfill the requirement by taking a three-credit-hour course that includes understanding the Constitution.
At USC, an estimated 60 percent of USC’s freshman, full-time students take a course that covers the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers, Pastides wrote in the 2014 letter.
“We’re removing a requirement if we pass the law,” said Senate Education Committee Chair Greg Hembree, R-Horry. “If we keep it as is, we could bring them (the colleges) in here and it could get ugly.”
The bill does not lay out specific penalties for failing to implement the requirements, but Grooms said that could be added later in the legislative process or as a budget proviso.
Though both Republicans and Democrats supported the idea at a Wednesday committee meeting, some lawmakers have reservations about the specifics of the bill
“The idea is great. I don’t think there is any problem with the idea,” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. However, “there’s no need for us to pass something the universities can’t (implement) without spending millions of dollars.”
Implementing this bill would cost the University of South Carolina up to $3.4 million a year in additional staff, according to the bill’s fiscal impact statement. South Carolina State University would need $115,000 per year to pay for an additional professor to teach the required course. College of Charleston would need $25,000 in one-time money to develop the course. Francis Marion University, the Medical University of South Carolina and Lander University would incur no additional costs, the impact statement said. Clemson University was not included in the fiscal impact statement.
USC said its financial estimates are based on the 8,000 new freshman and transfer students it receives per year, spokesman Wes Hickman said in a text message.
“The cost to teach enough live, in-classroom course sessions to that many students is what you saw reflected in the high-end estimate,” Hickman said.
Grooms was more skeptical of the figure.
“There would be no fiscal impact if USC were following the law,” Grooms said, using the state’s largest school as an example.
Existing law requires high schools to teach the U.S. Constitution, however, high schools have complied with the requirement, Grooms said. High school students can test out of the college course if they pass an advanced placement exam.
Nearly 28,000 students passed advanced placement exams in 2017, but it’s unclear how many of those students, if any, would have tested out of the proposed constitutional course, said Mike LeFever, the interim-executive director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.
The commission does not have data on how many college students would already meet the requirements of the bill, LeFever said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story quoted state Sen. Larry Grooms as saying that only Coastal Carolina University follows a state law that requires a course on the U.S. Constitution. Winthrop University in Rock Hill has a “Constitution Competency” that is required of all students as a part of their graduation requirements, according to a statement from the university. The statement said students fulfill the requirement by taking a three-credit-hour course that meets a number of standards, including having students demonstrate an understanding of the principles and applications of the U.S. Constitution and related topics. The Constitutional Competency is defined as understanding “the essentials of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers, including the study of American institutions and ideals.