A South Carolina lawmaker unveiled an ambitious proposition to cut down on tuition costs at colleges and universities throughout the state.
The heart of the bill is a $125 million trust fund that increases the amount of money each university gets for enrolling in-state students. In return, the colleges have to freeze tuition for a year, and after that, can raise it by a maximum of only 2.75 percent per year.
"Tuition is just too high, and our state support for tuition is too low," Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the Kershaw Democrat who sponsored the bill, said at a Tuesday news conference at the State House. "We love to have students from all over the country, but we have to take care of South Carolina ... It's time to stop the tuition madness."
Sheheen promises the plan in its current form would be funded without raising taxes. Rather, the trust fund would be funded through two separate sources. The first would require the legislature — in years when the state's general revenue increases — to increase higher education funding by the same percentage. For example, if general fund revenue increases 4 percent, higher education funding must be increased 4 percent.
Of trust fund money, 10 percent of that must go to funding need-based scholarships, according to the bill.
The second source would be online sales tax revenue, which Sheheen said he expects to grow.
Tim Hofferth, chairman of the state Commission on Higher Education, said in a statement that the commission "applauds Sen. Sheheen for highlighting the need to increase access and improve affordability in higher education for South Carolinians.
“We look forward (to) reviewing this proposal and working with Senator Sheheen, other lawmakers, university representatives, business leaders, parents and students on this important issue.”
With only days left in this year's legislative session, students shouldn't expect a vote on the bill before 2019. But Sheheen said he will hold hearings on the bill over the summer and is optimistic about its passage.
"This is not a Republican or Democrat bill," Sheheen said. "This is a 'let's get it done' bill."
Tuition at University of South Carolina and Clemson University are at historic highs and have been increasing for in-state students at an average rate of 6 percent and 7.2 percent per year since 1993, respectively, according to Commission on Higher Education data. Today, that means a USC undergraduate can expect to pay $24,462 a year before scholarships and Clemson undergrads can expect to pay $26,054.
University officials blame decreasing state funding for tuition increases. South Carolina currently spends 7 percent of its general fund on higher education. In 1986, the state spent roughly 17 percent of its general fund on higher education, according to data Sheheen presented at the news conference.
The proposal drew praise from University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides, who attended the news conference.
Pastides said he was "enthusiastic," about the proposal. He called it "the first real opportunity to come together to constrain college tuition ... a great start."
Previous proposals, Pastides said, were not as specific in terms of the funding sources and expenses. He expects "wholehearted support" from USC's board of trustees.
Though the plan lays out no road map for decreasing tuition, only slowing its growth, it could help USC's tuition fall in line with other Southeastern Conference schools, which are cheaper for in-state students to attend, Pastides said.
The proposal has the potential to get USC and the state's education oversight body, the Commission on Higher Education, to the same table. Both Pastides and the commission's interim director, Jeff Schilz, said they would be open to working with one another. The two organizations have been semi-publicly feuding over the price and accessibility of higher education in the state.
"We gotta get on the same team," Pastides said of USC's relationship with the commission.
The bill would apply to major research institutions such as USC and Clemson as well as technical schools, which also are struggling to stay affordable, said Tim Hardee, the president of South Carolina Technical College System.
He said tuition at technical schools isn't too high, but "we struggle to maintain the low tuition because of the money that comes from the state," Hardee said.