Out-of-state students have fueled much of the growth at South Carolina's three public research institutions, according to an analysis of figures from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.
But some legislators are wondering whether it's time to put a brake on the rising number of out-of-state students.
The percentage of S.C. students attending Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina at Columbia has dropped over the past decade. Meanwhile, the number of out-of-state students at those schools has risen much faster than the number of in-state students.
Higher education officials argue the out-of-state students, who often pay much higher tuition, are an important source of revenue for the schools in a time of declining state funding. They also say the out-of-state students enrich the cultural and academic environment. Some also end up staying in South Carolina, boosting the percentage of college-educated adults in a state sorely lacking in that area.
Still, some state lawmakers say they want to make sure that access to the state's premier public universities continues to be available for S.C. students.
"We want to make sure that our state universities educate our state's students," said state Rep. Kenny Bingham, the Lexington County Republican who is majority leader in the House of Representatives.
Higher education officials in South Carolina say the increase in out-of-state students has not reduced opportunities for in-state students.
"When out-of-state students are admitted to South Carolina universities, the institutions generally expand their student numbers so as not to reduce slots for qualified South Carolina students," said Dr. John Raymond, vice president for academic affairs and provost at MUSC.
Indeed, the overall number of students attending the state's research institutions and its comprehensive schools - the 10 public, four-year schools not designated as research schools - increased from 2000 to 2009, according to figures from the Commission on Higher Education.
The state's research universities enrolled 50,106 students in the fall of 2009, according to figures from the commission. That's up from 43,539 in the fall of 2000.
The number of in-state students attending the state's research universities rose to 32,906 in 2009 from 31,625 in 2000, an increase of 4 percent.
During that same time period, the number of out-of-state students jumped to 17,200 from 11,914, an increase of 44 percent.
The state's comprehensive schools also saw increases in the percentage of out-of-state students from 2000 to 2009. However, out-of-state growth at those schools has been slower than at the research universities.
Bingham has asked the Commission on Higher Education for information about housing and meal costs, in-state and out-of-state students and state funding.
The goal, Bingham said, is to see how S.C. colleges and universities are coping with this recession, which has lowered revenues and triggered sharp budget cuts.
He said he does not want schools to balance their financial books by relying exclusively on an influx of out-of-state students.
"If it's only money-driven, then I would have a problem with it," Bingham said.
In remarks to members of the General Assembly, some college presidents bluntly have said out-of-state students are an important source of additional money in tough economic times.
"They're contributing to our bottom line," Coastal Carolina University president David DeCenzo told lawmakers at a recent hearing. "We've got to make up that funding somehow."
But DeCenzo and other college officials say there is another benefit to the influx of out-of-state students - students paying much higher out-of-state tuition rates help keep tuition from skyrocketing for in-state students.
Based on where students have reported they are from - not on who pays in-state tuition - Coastal has the lowest percentage of in-state students among South Carolina's 13 public, four-year institutions.
Just over 52 percent of Coastal's students in 2009 reported they are from somewhere other than South Carolina.
Most of the state's 10 comprehensive schools have higher percentage of in-state students than the research institutions. Some comprehensive schools - Francis Marion University, Lander University, and the University of South Carolina Upstate - have in-state percentages of more than 90 percent.
About 76 percent of students at MUSC were in-state in fall 2009. USC-Columbia was at 66.2 percent in-state, and Clemson was at 63.4 percent.
Beyond the ramifications for tuition, school officials say out-of-state students add an important element to a college education.
"Enrolling students from different geographic areas, cultures and backgrounds provides a richer experience for students and helps us meet the state's demands for college-educated professionals, engineers and scientists," said Cathy Sams, chief public affairs officer at Clemson.
Ken Wingate, chairman of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, said he knows of no study that offers firm numbers on how many out-of-state students choose to remain in South Carolina after receiving their education.
But each student who stays can make a difference, he said, a fact he wants legislators to remember as they make tough budget decisions.
"The key focus needs to be that higher education pays many times over," Wingate said. "This is not an expenditure that is lost funding. It is an investment that brings a significant return."